Following Al Gore's announcement this week that he is endorsing Howard Dean for president, mainstream news coverage generally cohered into two major story lines. First, that it was a surprising rebuke that Gore had declined to endorse his 2000 running mate, Joe Lieberman. ("A STINGING SETBACK FOR LIEBERMAN," announced the senator's hometown paper.) And, second, that Gore's endorsement meant Dean was finally starting to win over the Democratic establishment. ("GORE'S EXPECTED ENDORSEMENT OF DEAN LENDS 'ESTABLISHMENT' SUPPORT IN CAMPAIGN," read a headline from Knight Ridder.) Neither story line withstands much scrutiny.
The betrayal-of-Lieberman account received boosts from the way Gore handled the endorsement (he gave Lieberman no warning that it was coming) and from the way Lieberman handled it (before the endorsement even took place, Lieberman's aides were peddling the betrayal motif). That same day, Lieberman, in a fit of pique, called a press conference in New Hampshire to capitalize on the newfound attention to his campaign and announced that Gore had finally called. "It was about four or five minutes in length and too late," he said curtly. At the Democratic debate that night in New Hampshire, even Lieberman rival John Kerry picked up the theme: "I was sort of surprised today, actually, by the endorsement, because I thought that Joe Lieberman had shown such extraordinary loyalty in delaying his own campaign."
But it really shouldn't have been much of a surprise. In the three years since Gore and Lieberman campaigned together, a rift both personal and ideological developed between the former running mates. The first major tension was over whether Gore would run for president again in 2004 -- a question that was of particular significance for Lieberman, who had publicly promised not to run if Gore did. But the Connecticut senator didn't just sit idly on the sidelines. When Gore had still not declared his intentions by mid-2002, Lieberman, fearing a late start could cripple his potential candidacy, began quietly lining up fund-raisers and staff -- maneuvers that irked Gore, according to people close to the former vice president. (There was at least one private meeting between the two men where Lieberman pushed Gore to put up or shut up.) And, in late 2002, Lieberman pointedly distanced himself from Gore. In his book, An Amazing Adventure, Lieberman writes about how he refused to deliver the partisan speeches the Gore campaign fed him -- "I'll be damned if I'm going to make this speech," he melodramatically recounts -- and how he cringed at Gore's populism. "The America I saw in the 2000 campaign," Lieberman writes, "was not an 'us vs. them' country, or a 'people vs. the powerful' economy." In case the message wasn't clear enough, he told reporters during a July 2002 Democratic Leadership Council meeting in New York that the Gore-Lieberman campaign message was a betrayal of New Democrat principles. This peeved Gore enough that, a few days later, he defended his campaign's populism in a New York Times op-ed.
As Lieberman moved back toward the Milquetoast centrism that had characterized his Senate tenure prior to 2000, Gore was continuing the leftward journey he had begun during the campaign. By the time he announced he would not run again in 2004, Gore had come out for a single-payer health care plan and against the war in Iraq. (Lieberman, by contrast, takes the incrementalist approach to health care and has been the most adamant Democratic advocate of the war.) As the campaign progressed, the signals that Gore was moving away from Lieberman and toward Dean only got more obvious. Two of Gore's most prominent speeches were delivered to MoveOn.org, the two-million-member-strong, grassroots Internet group that is overwhelmingly pro-Dean. "It was pretty clear," says one Democrat in Gore's camp. "All you do is just focus on what he said in the MoveOn speeches -- just the fact that he did it before MoveOn. He was not going to do that and then go endorse Joe Lieberman."
The second myth in the coverage of the Gore endorsement is that it represents the Democratic establishment coalescing around Dean. In fact, what it really represents is Gore's near-total alienation from the Democratic establishment -- a term that has become synonymous with the Clintons. Just like his movement away from Lieberman, this started a long time ago. First, there was the criticism that Gore wasn't running on the Clinton legacy in 2000. Then, there was the related hand wringing over whether he used Bill Clinton effectively on the campaign trail. After the 2000 election was over, the Democratic National Committee was purged of Gore people, such as Joe Andrew, and Bill Clinton's handpicked chairman, Terry McAuliffe, was installed.
Then, in 2002, as Gore was mulling another bid for president, much of the reporting about his potential candidacy focused on the fact that the Democratic establishment didn't want him to run. Typical was a front-page story in The Washington Post from November 23, 2002, headlined "SPLIT OVER ANOTHER GORE CAMPAIGN: GRASS ROOTS MORE ENTHUSIASTIC THAN DEMOCRATIC HIERARCHY." As the piece (which echoed others at the time) noted, "Some Democratic insiders ... would prefer to see the former vice president slip into permanent political retirement, freeing the party to find a fresh face to challenge President Bush in two years." It's hardly surprising then that Gore has spent the last two years finding a political home outside the Washington establishment that nudged him out of the race.
According to people close to him, Gore has done a lot of thinking since he left Washington about how the infrastructure of the party withered during the Clinton years because so much communication and institutional power was (quite sensibly) concentrated in the White House. (It's no coincidence that Gore spends most of his time these days developing a new TV news network.) Since Clinton left office, two clusters of institutions have filled the Democrats' organizational vacuum: grassroots groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Dean campaign, and inside-the-Beltway shops, such as the new fund-raising groups known as 527s (America Votes, Americans Coming Together) and think tanks (Center for American Progress). The latter groups are squarely in the hands of the Clintons and party strategists associated with them. Naturally, Gore sided with the grassroots-Dean wing. "One of the big animating forces for Gore," says someone close to the former vice president, "was to try and take part of the Democratic Party from the Clintons."
Gore made this point explicit with his endorsement of Dean, which took place in Bill Clinton's adopted backyard of Harlem. And Gore didn't align himself merely with Dean's critique of George W. Bush but with his critique of the party itself. "We need to remake the Democratic Party," he declared in Harlem. Just in case anyone missed it, he repeated the line in Iowa and mocked in a sing-song voice "the pundits, the experts, and the establishment," adding that Dean's army is "what we need to rebuild the Democratic Party." It's tempting to see the rift between Gore and the Clintons as a clean ideological split, especially since Hillary Clinton has been sounding more hawkish notes on Iraq recently. But the struggle within the party is less about left and right than it is about insiders versus outsiders. MoveOn.org and Dean For America may run on antiwar fuel, but the 527s are an amalgam of liberal interest groups that have just as much potential to move the party to the left. And the Clintons' candidate (Wesley Clark) is just as antiwar as Gore's.
In sum, Gore's endorsement of Dean is a reaction against everything he thinks cost him the election in 2000: the Clintons, the press, and Bush. There is only one candidate who is challenging the Clinton establishment of the party, making an end run around the mainstream media, and sticking it to Bush. And his name isn't Joe Lieberman.
Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at TNR.
By Ryan Lizza