Al Gore's stunning endorsement Tuesday of Howard Dean for president may not be about left versus center or even ideology at all. It's about energy, the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the future of politics itself.
Former Vice President Gore, who nearly won the presidency three years ago and remains a standard-bearer for his party, is clearly trying to get Democrats to coalesce around Dr. Dean and focus on unseating President Bush. But by endorsing Dean, he may also be hastening the reinvention of his party - or deepening its division in an election year.
Mr. Gore's goals were clearly much larger than a single candidate: In his endorsement speech in Harlem, he spoke of a need to "remake the Democratic Party." According to sources close to Gore, the party's 2000 nominee above all else appreciates the way that Dean has bypassed the party "establishment" and gone straight to the people - harnessing the tremendous reach of the Internet as a tool for organizing and fundraising.
"If you understand the Internet, you understand that this is the coming to fruition of the full potential of the Internet, and that Dean has used it to transform politics," says Elaine Kamarck, an adviser to Gore who teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Ms. Kamarck notes that Gore, as a senator, was indeed instrumental in the development of the Internet, despite the grief he took for saying he took the initiative in "creating" it, and that the future is now. "We will never go back to the old political system," she says. "That's what Gore's talking about. This is not about left and right. This is about how we choose our political leaders."
Gore's strike against the Democratic establishment - the party leaders, fundraisers, and operatives - is laden with irony. Gore himself used to represent the establishment, and in fact many of his former campaign aides are now working for candidates who party operatives would be more comfortable with as their party's nominee next year, people like Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Gen. Wesley Clark.
But two major events appear to have transformed the way Gore looks at politics: his shattering loss in the 2000 election, when he won more popular votes than Bush but lost in the electoral college over the disputed result in Florida, and the 9/11 attacks.
Gore now is said to regret deeply the way he handled his 2000 campaign, that is, cautiously and with too many advisers. What 9/11 has spawned is a Bush foreign policy driven by a policy of "preemption" against potentially threatening countries - thus the war on Iraq; Gore opposes that policy and has opposed the Iraq venture from the start. In contrast with all the other major candidates, Dean too has unequivocally opposed the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning, and made that a central campaign position.
As a symbol of Florida 2000, Gore has also married Dean more fully to those bitter memories, potentially adding even more energy to his campaign.
Some Democratic insiders see another dynamic at work in Gore's endorsement - a decision to boost someone who faces long odds against Bush next November. If Bush wins another term, the Democratic nomination will once again be wide open in 2008. Gore could then lay claim to Dean's enthusiastic supporters, and make himself a formidable opponent against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she choose to run, some Democrats say.
"There could well be a backlash in a week or so to what will be seen as an unprincipled act by a politician who has a personal interest in Democrats losing 2004," says one Democratic insider.
Other Democrats remain skeptical that Dean's formula of passion plus an amalgamation of liberal and centrist policies can win the presidency.
"The question is whether simply stirring partisan passions is a winning political strategy," says Will Marshall of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "I don't believe it is. But it looks like we're embarked on a great experiment where that proposition will be put to the test."
In immediate political terms, Gore's endorsement could give Dean a boost in the key state of Iowa, where Dean is in a close battle with Rep. Dick Gephardt. Gore is popular there and went with Dean Tuesday to campaign for him.
Gore's endorsement could also give Dean an additional foothold in the African-American community - a key part of the Democratic base, whose votes could be pivotal in early primary states such as South Carolina. In his remarks at the announcement, Dean drew attention to the fact that the event was being held in Harlem, and he stressed the importance of recognizing those "people that are with us all the time."
Although Dean's campaign has been criticized in the past for having mostly white supporters, he has been increasing his outreach to African-Americans lately. The nod from Gore likely aids that effort."It's not going to have the same impact that a Clinton endorsement, for example, would have," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. But "it certainly helps."