Unlike Barack Obama, Bill Clinton does not believe in "the fierce urgency of now." The former President has an exquisitely languid sense of how political time unfurls. He understands that those moments the political community, especially the media, considers urgent usually aren't. He has seen his own election and reelectionand completing his second termpronounced "impossible" and lived to tell the tale. He remembers that in spring 1992 he had pretty much won the Democratic nomination but was considered a dead man walking, running third behind Bush the Elder and Ross Perot. He knows that April is the silly season in presidential politics, the moment when candidates involved in a bruising primary battle seem weakest and bloodied, as both Hillary Clinton and Obama do now. It's the moment when pundits demand action"Drop out, Hillary!"and propound foolish theories. And so I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I'm slouching toward, well, a theory: if this race continues to slide downhill, the answer to the Democratic Party's dilemma may turn out to be Al Gore.
This April promises to be crueler than most. The two campaigns have started attacking each other with chainsaws, while the Republican John McCain is moving ahead in some national polls. At this point, Clinton can only win the nomination ugly: by superdelegates abandoning Obama and turning to her, in drovesnot impossible, but not very likely either. Even if Clinton did overtake Obama, it would be very difficult for her to win the presidency: African Americans would never forgive her for "stealing" the nomination. They would simply stay home in November, as would the Obamista youth. (Although the former President is probably thinking: Yeah, but John McCain is a flagrantly flawed candidate tooI'd accept even a corrupted nomination and take my chances.)
Which is not to say that Clinton's candidacy is entirely without purpose now that she is pursuing a Republican-style race gambit, questioning Obama's 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah "God damn America" Wright. Democrats will soon learn how damaging that relationship might be in a general election. They'll also see if Obama has the gumption to bounce back, work hardnot just arena rallies for college kids but roundtables for the grizzled and unemployed in American Legion hallsand change the minds that have turned against him. The main reason superdelegates have not yet rallied round Obama is that the party is collectively holding its breath, waiting to see how he performs in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana.
He will probably do well enough to secure the nomination. But what if he tanks? What if he can't buy a white working-class vote? What if he loses all three states badly and continues to lose after that? I'd guess that the Democratic Party would still give him the nomination rather than turn to Clinton. But no one would be very happyand a year that should have been an easy Democratic victory, given the state of the economy and the unpopularity of the incumbent, might slip away.
Which brings us back to Al Gore. Pish-tosh, you say, and you're probably right. But let's play a little. Let's say the elders of the Democratic Party decide, when the primaries end, that neither Obama nor Clinton is viable. Let's also assumeand this may be a real stretchthat such elders are strong and smart enough to act. All they'd have to do would be to convince a significant fraction of their superdelegate friends, maybe fewer than 100, to announce that they were taking a pass on the first ballot at the Denver convention, which would deny the 2,025 votes necessary to Obama or Clinton. What if they then approached Gore and asked him to be the nominee, for the good of the partyand suggested that he take Obama as his running mate? Of course, Obama would have to be a party to the deal and bring his 1,900 or so delegates along.
I played out that scenario with about a dozen prominent Democrats recently, from various sectors of the party, including both Obama and Clinton partisans. Most said it was extremely unlikely ... and a pretty interesting idea. A prominent fund raiser told me, "Gore-Obama is the ticket a lot of people wanted in the first place." A congressional Democrat told me, "This could be our way out of a mess." Others suggested Gore was painfully aware of his limitations as a candidate. "I don't know that he'd be interested, even if you handed it to him," said a Gore friend. Chances are, no one will hand it to him. The Democratic Party would have to be monumentally desperate come June. And yet ... is this scenario any more preposterous than the one that gave John McCain the Republican nomination? Yes, it's silly season. But this has been an exceptionally "silly" year.