Bill Bradley today became the latest high-profile Democrat to endorse Howard Dean. The prospect of Bradley and Gore, who fought a bitter primary struggle four years ago, coming together to endorse a candidate in this one is a peculiar and interesting one. I think, as I suggested before, that it shows less about Bradley than it does about Gore – who was castigated in 2000 for failing to run the kind of aggressive populist campaign Bradley and now Dean is associated with.

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This NY Times piece – “Mr. Inside Embraces Mr. Outside, and What a Surprise” is one of many analyses that will no doubt proliferate over the next few days trying to explain Gore’s endorsement.

I think Purdum is on the right track in noting Gore’s drastic shift to the left since the 2000 election, as well as his series of strident condemnations of Bush policy over the past months. These have been, by turns, gratifying and maddening, I think it’s safe to say, to those of us who were exasperated with Gore for leaving so little ideological distinction between himself and Bush during the actual campaign. Gore’s piece in the Times after the Enron scandal tying corporate malfeseance to Bush’s corporate politics made the right case – but it’s a case that, contrary to what that piece also said – Gore never made on the campaign trail. Those conservatives who think (occasionally rightly) that they can convince American voters that the main fault line in their politics is between civil and uncivil politicians have tried to use Gore’s move to the left as evidence that he’s bitter and angry at his personal loss. I think it’s much more that Gore, like Clinton and other New Democrats, recognize the appeal of Old Democrat values and so fall back on them once out of office both to bring nobility to their legacy and to convince themselves that they at least lost because they stood for something and not because they didn’t. Dean’s aggressive condemnations of the failings of this administration fit the message that Gore has claimed for himself since 2000. So it’s shouldn’t be surprising to see him endorsing someone who’s ready to carry that message forward – and to see him endorsing the candidate who’s running the kind of campaign now that many wanted him to run four years ago.

What Purdum’s analysis for the Times fails to mention, however, is what may really be the most compelling reason for Gore to endorse Dean now: he’s winning. Gore, in the same way as, say SEIU, gains power from picking late enough to choose the one who’ll win and early enough to be as formative in that victory as possible. Gore specifically, however, has the chance by endorsing Dean to merge their narratives – one populist fighter has the election narrowly stolen but four years later another arises to take it back – and drown out the alternative – the New Democrat establishment fouls up an election and it’s left to a populist outsider to ride in four years later to fix it.

Purdum asks whether this will hurt Gore’s credibility, and I think the answer is no more than Gore’s already hurt his credibility by governing and campaigning from the center and then moving to the left since. More importantly, he asks whether this will hurt Dean’s candidacy, and I don’t think it will measurably. Dean has successfully enough framed himself as an outside-the-beltway candidate, and campaigned that way long enough, that I think this will come off more as the beltway coming around to the Governor of Vermont than the other way around. More fundamentally, I think candidates can be effectively criticized, in extreme cases, for not repudiating deeply objectionable folks who endorse them, but that otherwise criticizing them for who endorses them is difficult to pull off. I think that Al Gore’s endorsement will give Dean’s critics on the left about as much ammunition as Jesse Jackson Jr.’s, Ted Rall’s, Molly Ivins’, William Greider’s, et al gave his critics on the right: not a whole lot, in the long term. Speaking as one of those critics on the left, that Dean got Gore’s endorsement says to me just that he’s an effective organizer. Gore endorsing Dean may give some added momentum and visibility to Sharpton and Kucinich’s campaigns, which could only be good for the Democratic party, but I don’t see any of the other candidates positioned at this point to use it to frame themselves as the independent choice.

What this endorsement does, as I see it, is move a slew of voters to consider Dean – or to consider him seriously – who hadn’t before, and deflate much of the criticism from DLCers and others of Dean as unelectable or out of the mainstream. Much as Jackson’s hashkachah (certification, roughly translated) marks Dean kosher for some to his left, Gore’s will mark him kosher for some to his right. And it may mean that the Democratic establishment is learning not only the lesson of 2002 – what happens when you offer no viable alternative – but also the lesson of 1972 – what happens when the party leadership abandons the party’s candidate.