Gore's comeback lost on a unified people

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2001, 12:00am

THE TALKING HEADS across America's television networks, still jabbering in overdrive since September 11, like to opine that it will be months and possibly years before the full impact of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington becomes clear. But already, it seems, one of the hidden casualties will be the political career of Al Gore.

Mr Gore was the vice-president who ran as the Democratic candidate against then Texas governor George W. Bush in the national election last November.

Both weak candidates, they fought the most controversial election in United States history. Mr Gore won the popular vote but lost 5-4 in the crucial judgment by the Justices of the Supreme Court that assured Republican Mr Bush of victory by stopping the counting of disputed votes in the state of Florida.

With Mr Bush's legitimacy in question, Mr Gore was expected to have a powerful weapon to rally Democrat sympathies going into 2004. But less than a month after the terrorist strikes, everything - to quote the cliche of the moment - has changed. The crisis of November last year suddenly looks small.

The supposedly illegitimate Mr Bush is now enjoying approval ratings of 90 per cent, as high as any post-war president. He has delivered the speech of his life - faint praise admittedly - to the US Congress.

And as Americans rally behind the flag and his 'new war' on terrorism, no one is in the mood to laugh at his foreign-policy inexperience either.

Signs of the shift are everywhere. But few are as ironic as the message telegraphed by Mr Gore himself. Last weekend he re-emerged from self-imposed political exile to give what had long been billed as the first speech of his long return.

He choose the mid-western state of Iowa, a pregnant choice given its party candidate selections mark the traditional start of the primary season and the election campaign proper. The crisis, however, compelled him to deliver a most non-traditional speech.

'George W. Bush is my commander-in-chief,' Mr Gore said. 'We are united behind our president, behind our country, behind the effort to seek justice, not revenge, to make sure this can never happen again and to make sure we have the strongest unity in America we have ever had.'

Not that long ago, Mr Gore would have attacked Mr Bush's links to America's big corporation interests - oil and tobacco especially - while billing himself as the saviour of America's poor, sick and working classes. Not this time.

'The country is more united than at any time I can remember in my life,' he said. 'We come together not as partisans but as patriots.'

For cynics who suggest his words may just be more evidence of Mr Gore's shameless ability to pander, it should be remembered that the current mood within the country means such sentiments are by no means unusual.

In fact, it could be argued that he had little choice given anything perceived as criticism right now from a campaigning politician would be suicide.

Once again, timing is working against Mr Gore. The speech comes after some rather unfortunate early efforts to start the long fund-raising haul for 2004, even before September 11. The New York Times, a previous Gore backer, revealed that powerful Democratic donors were less than enthusiastic.

As one who raised US$2 million (about HK$15.5 million) said: 'They want to be with a winner and they just don't believe he can pull it off.'

Through the election, Democrats preferred to talk about Mr Bush's weaknesses rather than Mr Gore's. But now, as expected, the internal recriminations are severe. Putting the contested result aside, the widespread view is that Mr Gore should have easily been able to beat Mr Bush, the least experienced presidential contender in recent history. Mr Gore lacked sincerity and depth and a constantly shifting persona gave the impression of a man who really did not know his own heart. In three televised debates, he presented three different masks, giving an acknowledged poor debater the edge.

The left-wing political journal The Nation recently summed up Mr Gore's future in the minds of many Democrats with a stinging editorial.

'In the eyes of most Democratic voters, Gore was screwed. Too bad. He doesn't know how to mount an effective national campaign,' it wrote. The Nation referred to his concession speech last December - 'It's time for me to go.'

'It is still that time,' it added.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent