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November 29, 2001
The Gore Nightmare

Share, for a fleeting moment, Al Gore's daily dream: that what counted in Florida a year ago was the intent, rather than the actual practice, of voters. And today he's the one running the White House.

The truth is that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 we're probably better off, in the short term, with George W. Bush. But not for the reasons usually cited.

The Bush foreign-policy team gets exceptionally high marks. But a Gore foreign-policy team -- Dick Holbrooke at State, Sam Nunn at Defense, Leon Fuerth as national security adviser and George Mitchell as a roving troubleshooter -- would be equal in experience, expertise and resolve. They also would be bolder.

Today's basic policy formulation -- state-building, a strong reliance on the United Nations, and multilateralism -- all were articulated during the 2000 campaign by the Democratic candidate. "Bush has bought into the Clinton/Gore policy," notes Democratic Rep. Barney Frank.

A Gore economic team -- Larry Summers, former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson and Wall Street whiz Steven Rattner -- would be vastly superior to Mr. Bush's team, as would their policies. Certainly, a Gore administration would have pushed a more coherent and comprehensive homeland security initiative.

A President Gore would micromanage the terrorist crisis but would be more knowledgeable. The imponderable would be whether Mr. Gore, in a time of crisis, would be inspiring and constructively challenging, or unctuous and pedantic.

But the real reason a President Gore would have more difficulty, under identical circumstances, is that the political right wouldn't have given him the leeway and support that President Bush has received.

In the same situation, the vocal right in Congress would have blamed Sept. 11 on the "weakness" of the Clinton-Gore policies. Jesse Helms would be ranting about the crippling of the CIA that began with Jimmy Carter and accelerated under Bill Clinton. (Somehow the Ronald Reagan, Bill Casey and George H.W. Bush years don't count.) The critics would go on to assert that capitulating to the Chinese with a semi-apology when they downed a U.S. plane only encouraged Osama bin Laden.

If President Gore had waited almost four weeks to militarily respond -- as President Bush prudently did -- does anyone doubt the congressional mullahs would have embellished the "weakness" charge with protests about the pitiful state of the American military? (Remarkable, isn't it, how quickly this administration turned a decaying mess into a lean, mean fighting machine -- just like the Kennedy administration 40 years ago when it rapidly closed the missile gap.)

Recent history provides a guide to the response of the congressional right once a conflict starts. In 1999, House Republicans refused to support the Clinton/NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo after it was launched. The GOP House and Senate whips, Tom DeLay and Don Nickles, both suggested the atrocities in Kosovo were more the fault of Mr. Clinton than war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. A few months earlier, when the U.S. bombed Saddam Hussein, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said it was done to deflect from President Clinton's impeachment problems -- presumably with the complicity of Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

On homeland security there has been some criticism of President Bush, but it has been relatively mild. But suppose it had been Democrat Seth Waxman as attorney general and Robert Mueller as the new Gore-appointed FBI director when the same hijackers did exactly what they did.

Nawaq Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who drove the plane into the Pentagon, were on the CIA's "watch list" of potential terrorists; Almihdhar, the government knew, met with the al Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur nearly two years earlier. Yet this information wasn't shared and both men came into and traveled freely around the U.S. In August, the Justice Department turned down a request to search the computer of a Minnesota man -- who sought to learn to fly a plane without takeoffs or landings, and who was labeled a terrorist by French intelligence. He now is suspected of being an accomplice.

Perhaps all this is unavoidable in an open society. But envision the harangues from Orrin Hatch about the administration's ACLU mindset that gave the terrorists free rein.

Top House GOP sleuth Dan Burton, no doubt, would have found some Arab contribution to the Gore-Lieberman campaign and launched a new round of headline-grabbing witch hunts. When that fizzled -- all Burton investigations do -- he would have turned to a government that, eight weeks after anthrax attack, still couldn't tell us whether the culprit was foreign or domestic.

The full-moon crowd would have gone into conspiracy hysterics if these anthrax-laden letters had been sent to Dick Armey and a handful of radio talk show hosts.

Then there would have been the economic stimulus package. In addition to extended unemployment benefits, temporary tax cuts, New York City rebuilding aid and bailouts for the insurance industry, the Gore White House might have overreached for items like more highway security (building roads), or have placated labor allies by proposing collective bargaining rights for all public safety workers.

The DeLay-Armey criticism would have been vicious. Yet the Bush White House, under the guise of economic stimulus, is trying to pay off all of the campaign contributors and K Street lobbyists who didn't get a piece of the earlier tax cut, a move that is far more injurious and costly.

There would have been constructive critics in the Republican ranks. Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel and John McCain would have been every bit as honest in any critique of Democratic war plans as they are today. Lawmakers like Fred Thompson would have avoided cheap-shot hearings and House Speaker Dennis Hastert would have sought the same bipartisan support that Democrats Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle are offering today.

There is a need for legitimate argument and disagreement over economic policy and the criminal-justice approach, and certainly over sending young American men and women into harm's way. Such a debate will escalate in the coming weeks and months, just as it did during previous conflicts.

But if Al Gore had been president, the narrow right would have turned that desirable debate into a vindictive, petty one.