WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 — It's not merely that they want to rally 'round
our leader — though they do.
It's not that they think their man wasn't up to the job — they think he was. But with almost audible sighs of relief,
some top people who worked for Al Gore privately tell me they are glad (relieved might be a better word)
that George Bush — not Bill Clinton's veep — is in the White House now.
THE REASONS are complex, but the bottom line is not: "I'm glad Bush
is in there and Gore is not," is the
blunt way one former top Gore lieutenant put it to me.
As Bush returned this week to a Democratic bastion — New York City — he remains, at least in pure numerical terms, the most popular president in modern history. More interesting, to me, is that — for now, at least — Bush's successes and the nature of the war against terrorism have combined to erase the corrosive sense of bitterness left behind in the hearts of Democrats by the 2000 election.
First, it's fair to say that Bush's performance since Black Tuesday
has impressed Democrats, even, if not especially,
those who thought he was dumber than Will Ferrell's amiable dunce on "Saturday Night Live." Since his home-run
speech of Sept. 20 — which solidified confidence in him — his sure and patient coalition-building
(and noose-tightening) has impressed the Democrats, too.
MORE ROOM TO MANEUVER
The Democratic strategists also have realized that Bush has far more political room to maneuver at home than Al Gore would have had. With his reasonably good ties to the conservative, pro-military wing of his party, the president has been able to both talk tough and take his time. Bush can issue threats, and then wait while the world helps us by other means — financial, diplomatic, investigative — to prepare the ground for whatever, presumably surgical, use of force he orders. Gore may not have had the time to execute a waiting game. "The Republican Right would have been all over us," said one Gorean.
But it's more than that. While they won't say so publicly, former Gore
lieutenants think their man might have been
seriously hampered as a war leader, at least in this war at this time, by the controversies and personalities of the past.
Even now, former aides to Clinton are fighting a rear-guard action against
accusations that they did too little too late
to stop Osama bin Laden as he ramped up his global jihad against America. The papers these days are full of stories
from the Clinton era about what was, or was not, done to make the country more secure — or to capture or kill
bin Laden and his terrorist cells.
As usual, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward got the goods, quoting
the lament of a top Clinton administration
defense official: "I wish we'd recognized it then" — the Bin Laden threat — "and started the campaign that they
have started now. That's my main regret. In hindsight, we were at war."
Well, duh. Had Gore won, many of those now defending their past efforts
— or lack of them — would still be in place,
part of what inevitably (if unfairly) would have been seen as the third term of "Clinton-Gore." To be sure, transition to an "All-Al" government would have been under way by Labor Day, but probably not complete, given the slow, contentious
pace of nominations on the Hill. "We would have had a ton of Clinton folks to deal with," said a former Gore adviser, "
and they would have been part of the problem."
THE CLINTON BAGGAGE
Not the least of Gore's burdens would have been Bill Clinton who, it turns out, was far more actively engaged in trying to find and kill Bin Laden than we knew. Other than inviting Clinton to the National Cathedral for a memorial service on Sept. 14, Bush has kept the former president entirely at arms length. Would Gore have been able to do the same? Would he have wanted to?
Another part of the equation is diplomatic. Democratic presidents, using the trust they have built up with Israel, have specialized in trying to bring peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Jimmy Carter made considerable progress, and Clinton tried to do the same. Republicans, by and large, have tended to focus both their public and private efforts on the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The plain fact is, the Republican war commanders — from Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld (in the region now) — have wider and deeper contacts than the Democrats in that region, especially in Saudi Arabia, whose support is indispensable to the success of any anti-terrorism effort. Bush's commanders undoubtedly have a better sense of the sentiment of Saudi CEOs in air-conditioned ballrooms than of impoverished fellaheen in the dusty streets.
But at least the GOP has some ties to go on, and Democrats generally
admire Colin Powell. "Frankly, I feel a whole lot better with Bush's team
in there," said a top Gore guy I know. "We'd have had less experience,
and a harder time."
Howard Fineman is Newsweek's chief political whore and an NBC News whore.