Message to Democrats: Lay Off Gore and Worry About Winning

Posted December 12, 2003 at 3:37pm

Almost exactly a year ago today, I learned that Al Gore was about to “announce his plans for 2004.” I was in my living room reading the Sunday papers and enjoying a nice warm fire when my cellphone, home phone, pager and BlackBerry went crazy. What the hell was going on? The first person to break the news to me was a reporter (in case you’re wondering, Sen. Lieberman, I did not receive a heads up). [IMGCAP(1)]

“Oops,” I recall thinking at the time. After hearing from several reporters, my initial reaction was to send the Gores an instant message to confirm. They didn’t respond until the next day. So I, like most of the political world, watched Gore on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to get the full 411. He wasn’t running.

To ease my blues, I placed calls and sent e-mails to some of my former colleagues from the Gore campaign to mull the next steps. By the end of the night, I talked to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

“Senator,” I said, “you’re a free man now. It’s time to start your own campaign.” Joe has been running hard and catching up ever since. (By the way, it was unfortunate that these good men did not connect last week. I do not believe it was intentional on Gore’s part.)

When conversation turned to the No. 2 spot on the 2000 ticket, I became a self-proclaimed “Lieberman Supporter” after Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) declined to go through the vice presidential selection process. When Gore convened his top aides on Aug. 6, 2000, and asked whom he should chose for VP, my vote was for Lieberman. At the time, I did not know much of anything about the Senator other than the fact that he was chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. I read up on his bio and thought, “Why not someone who spent time in Mississippi registering African-Americans to vote?” Over the next days and weeks, I spent hours defending Gore’s choice to liberal groups, African-Americans, and even some Jewish leaders who had expressed concerns over Lieberman’s more conservative leanings. Gore, I argued, had every right to select someone who would help broaden his campaign’s appeal to centrist, moderate and independent voters.

Joe Lieberman is a good man. But then as now, Al Gore has earned the right to spend his political capital in any way he sees fit, or in his words, to endorse at a time when he “could have an impact on the race.” Ultimately, it will be the voters who decide the outcome of this race, not Gore, and the former vice president has respect for that process. Which is why I don’t understand the drama that accompanied Gore’s decision to point undecided voters and activists to support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. This move has sent some Democratic leaders, activists, donors and reporters into a nauseating display of political hysteria. In my judgment, as the 2000 Democratic nominee and former vice president of the United States, Al Gore has every right to throw his enthusiastic support (notice, I did not say weight) and considerable political and fundraising machine to Dean. You go, Al!

The Gore endorsement was a much-needed wake-up call to the other eight candidates. Thanks to Gore, they are now stepping up to the plate, securing their own endorsements (South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn finally embraced Gephardt, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark is picking up the endorsement of former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young) and at last sounding like they know they are really in a race, not just a schoolyard shoving match.

The so-called Democratic establishment should wake up and start listening to the party’s grassroots supporters who, time after time, slog their way to the polls to help lift up Democrats. These energetic, fiery and hard-working citizens deserve a standard bearer who will champion our party’s platform of responsibility, opportunity, freedom and fairness for all. Dean still has a long way to go before any votes are actually cast, but he must be given immeasurable credit for what he has brought to the Democratic Party this electoral season — renewed passion, increased participation by ordinary citizens and a reacquaintance with our core principles. Rather than throw stones at Gore for standing behind someone he strongly admires, perhaps the establishment can renew their focus on how Democrats can defeat President Bush next fall and, hopefully, recapture Congressional seats in the process.

For 20 long years, the Democratic Party has suffered through the throes of an identity crisis. Are we too liberal (as the Republican Party would like Americans to believe) or have we gone too far over to the right (as some Democrats think) in order to capture the middle at the expense of our base? Over my long career in politics, I have worked for conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats and every persuasion between. For me, the most important qualification is their stance on issues and their character. Today, I can honestly say that if the voters select Dean or any of the other eight candidates, I will do everything in my power to help rally as many people as possible to get out to vote. But, when I read or hear about the establishment “mourning” over the possibility of Dean winning the nomination, I have to ask myself, why?

The only plausible answer is the establishment feels threatened that things have been essentially taken out of their hands by good, old-fashioned grassroots politics.

Since the last presidential campaign, those on the left and the right have spent countless hours alienating each other instead of studying what we did right in the past three presidential campaigns. In those elections, Democrats got out more votes than the Republicans. Period. The party did it by rallying the base, reaching out to the swing or moderate voters and by having a clear and concise message centered on Democratic values and principles of responsibility and opportunity.

Al Gore’s decision to dust himself off and return to politics will prove to be a good thing not just for Dean in the short run, but for the party over the long haul. If Dean is unable to build on Gore’s endorsement and lock down the nomination next year, I hope Al Gore will help the eventual nominee enlarge the electorate, train a new generation of political operatives and continue to speak out on important national issues like the war and the economy.

No question, Al Gore and our team made mistakes in 2000. But in looking back, I hope Democrats will focus on what the Gore campaign did right, including turning out the most votes three straight presidential campaigns in a row.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.