What a dilemma for Al Gore.
He should be well ahead of George W. Bush by now. He should be on cruise control, barreling down the interstate toward an electoral inevitability.
He should have won all three debates by knockout or unanimous decision, exercising his famous command of fact and argument. He should be the unarguable favorite in this race the Expected One. Instead.....
And so the dilemma on which Gore chews over which, I suspect, he gnashes his teeth is this: Whether to go to the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, I need help. Unless you come out into the country and start campaigning for me now! I am going to lose this election. And if I lose, there goes the vindication of the Clinton years. There goes the legacy."
Gore doesn't want to do it. How humiliating for the former cigar store Indian. He stood before the convention and I said, "I am my own man." He kissed his wife as no politician in American history has ever publicly kissed his wife. He turned himself into an explosion of manic animation pinwheeling and high-fiving across the American landscape, caring and sharing like nobody's business, the alpha male of the millennial dream, his face a kaleidoscope of exuberance. And it hasn't worked. After all that profligate expenditure of self, he remains locked in a see-saw, too-close-to-call race against a nice enough fellow from Texas and Yale whose mind, even in the midst of a presidential debate, seems to behave like a marathon runner at the 24-mile mark struggling, panting for coherence.
What should Gore do? There must be fierce injured pride at work in his calculations. Gore is the Salieri of American politics. He wants so desperately to be a genius. He has mastered the techniques. He knows everything. And yet the spark of genius is not in him. And there in the Oval Office sits the Mozart from Arkansas, the natural, the casually smutty debaucher of interns who is also the political genius of our time.
So, the dilemma: Does Salieri, seeing that he is losing the audience, invite Mozart to join the tour?
My answer, if I were Gore's manager, would be: Yes. Absolutely. Immediately.
I would tell Gore: What is humiliation, next to winning? The only humiliation is losing. In this case, the humiliation is only in your mind anyway, and in the spin of things. Mobilizing Clinton need not be an affront to your own gifts. Turn it into a positive. You have worked with him for eight years been a crucial part of a successful administration. Play to the theme of continuation, play to the successes.
Americans have demonstrated an interesting maturity (or moral slackness, depending) in their willingness to separate Clinton's squalid personal behavior from his official stewardship. Right now, their biggest fear is that the Clinton years are going to go away; they suffer from abandonment anxiety.
Therefore: Brag on the Clinton years! Promise more of the same! Bring Clinton out to brag on you! He's a narcissist, to be sure, but the smartest one in America. He knows what needs to be done.
Salieri's music isn't worth a damn except to the extent that it sounds like Mozart's. So bring out Mozart and have him play. And while that sweet music lingers in their ears, have him promise the American audience that your own music will be just as wonderful. They might half-believe it.
Americans had better be hearing that music in their minds when they go to the polls. Otherwise, you are headed for that desolate zone of historical nonexistence that is inhabited by former vice presidents.