The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is more up in the air than it seems. Much has been made on cable news channels of Hillary Clinton’s lead, which has grown since the spring to 22 points over Barack Obama, according to a recent USA Today poll.
Such polls obscure what is in fact a volatile situation that will likely pass through two or three more distinct phases as the actual primaries near. If, for example, 2004 is any guide, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will begin, about three weeks before they vote, to take a hard look at the question of which of the candidates seems the most electable (this was the main basis on which John Kerry vaulted past Howard Dean). Looking at the race from this perspective only blurs the picture further, however, because each of the three leading contenders can make reasonable-sounding claims: Clinton, that she is the most battle-tested, experienced, and safely centrist, and brings Bill with her; Obama, that he is the freshest face and the least vulnerable to attack, and that he alone among the leading contenders never supported the unpopular Iraq war; Edwards, that he is the boldest at a time when boldness is called for, and that he is a white—Southern—male, although of course he can’t quite put it that way.
For a significant number of impatient citizens, there is one more possible candidate who is, they would argue, the most electable of all. First, he’s already won a presidential election; he was merely denied his rightful victory by an ethically compromised Supreme Court majority. Second, to the extent that foreign policy and terrorism remain potential Democratic weaknesses, he has extensive experience and expertise in dealing with both. Third, he was right on Iraq. And fourth and most importantly, he has reemerged in the Bush era as a completely different man from the cautious candidate, surrounded by too many consultants, we saw in the 2000 campaign.
Al Gore could not even bring himself to criticize the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in the science curricula of Kansas schools in 1999 (a moment that has stuck with me). Now, he has cast caution aside and is a truth-teller—on Iraq, on executive power, on the corrosive role of television in politics, and indeed on the need to give science priority over faith in public deliberations (although not specifically, to …