Look Who's Back: It's Gore and Lieberman in '08

Consider, if only for fun, the theoretical possibility that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman – allies and running mates eight short years ago – end up running against each other this fall.

Gore, of course, is back in the news again this week after delivering a high-profile endorsement of Barack Obama in Michigan. The sight of the two of them together was enough to stir wishful thoughts of an Obama-Gore ticket among the Democratic grass roots. Some pundits had fun with the idea, too.

Lieberman, for his part, has taken an increasingly active and visible role in John McCain’s campaign. He clearly has McCain’s trust and friendship – the two have traveled together extensively this campaign season – and is a highly valued surrogate because of the authority with swing voters that his perceived independence supposedly gives him. The case for Lieberman as McCain’s running mate is compelling and has also been spelled out by numerous analysts.

It’s obvious that McCain would in an ideal world love to put Lieberman on his ticket, and it’s not hard to imagine Obama feeling the same about Gore. And yet it’s nearly impossible to imagine that either – let alone both – of them will end up on the ballot this fall.

With Gore, the issue is simple: Why, with the international stature he has won these past few years, would he ever want to return to a historically ceremonial post that he already held for eight years – one in which he’d be forced to take a back seat, in terms of policy and presentation, to someone else?

Lieberman, despite his public pooh-poohing, would probably be far more amenable to filling out McCain’s ticket if McCain were to make a serious offer. But McCain most likely won’t take the idea seriously, because of the poisonous divisions within the Republican Party that could be created by a VP candidate who was a lifelong Democrat until two years ago and who continues to side with Democrats on just about every issue except the Iraq war – including abortion and gay rights. Given the intense skepticism and apathy toward McCain that much of the G.O.P. base feels, is this a road the presumptive nominee really wants to go down?

Still, maybe, just maybe, one hand will force the other. Keep in mind that the conventions this summer are closer together than ever before. The Democrats will wrap up in Denver on a Thursday night, and the Republicans will come to order the following Monday in Minneapolis. This virtual overlap could obliterate the tradition of the candidate with the first convention making the first running-mate pick.

Right now, it’s more plausible (less implausible?) that Lieberman will end up running with McCain than that Gore will join with Obama. So let’s suppose McCain jumps the gun and picks Lieberman in early August, before Obama has named his own VP. The pick could do wonders for McCain’s standing with independent voters, who already like him and would, for the most part, probably like the idea of such an unconventional ticket.

The pressure would be on Obama to make a similarly powerful statement with his running mate. Suddenly, the idea of courting Gore would be more attractive. And Gore, given the chance to play the white knight rescuing his party from the McCain-Lieberman surprise, might suddenly be a lot more receptive.

A Gore-Lieberman undercard, if it ever came to pass, would be so rife with personal, historical and ideological drama that it might outshine the main event.

When they ran together in 2000, there seemed to be genuine warmth between Gore and Lieberman. Gore chose the Connecticut senator to create distance with Bill Clinton (Lieberman had been his most outspoken critic among Democrats) and to make a splash by placing a Jewish candidate on a major national ticket for the first time. Lieberman praised Gore effusively throughout that campaign, and even after it, going so far as to put his plans to run for president in 2004 on hold until Gore made a decision of his own – something he didn’t do until the very end of 2002.

But since then, things have not gone well between them.

In policy terms, the split began when Lieberman aggressively championed the invasion of Iraq while Gore, with a speech in the fall of 2002, was the most visible Democrat to speak out against it. As the invasion gave way to a disastrous occupation, Gore’s stock steadily rose on the left, transforming the onetime centrist hawk into an unlikely hero of his party’s grass roots. But Lieberman stuck to his guns, staunchly defending the war even as his fellow Democrats defected, one after another. The result was inevitable: When Gore took sides in the 2004 Democratic presidential race, he chose Howard Dean.

“I’m not going to talk about Al Gore’s sense of loyalty,” was all Lieberman would say after learning of the endorsement – through the media.

That made it personal, and from there, their divergence only widened. By 2006, Lieberman’s unyielding faith in the war cost him the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut, a contest in which Gore pointedly refused to endorse him. Reelected anyway as an independent, Lieberman returned to Washington as something of a hero to Republicans – and a figure as reviled by the left as George Bush and Dick Cheney. Arguably, Lieberman now has a bigger political base than ever, but it’s concentrated almost entirely in the middle and on the right of the ideological spectrum.

Gore, too, enjoys better political standing now than he did eight years ago – much better. His early and persistent war opposition and his vocal denunciations of the Bush administration and its “assault on reason” have only cemented his standing as a god of the left, but his crusade against global warming – and the Nobel prize and Oscar that it has netted him – has won Gore a badly needed second look from political independents who were so turned off by him in 2000. His popularity has never been higher.

The case of Gore and Lieberman validates the claim that separation can be good for a couple. But imagine the intrigue if they came together again in another election as political opponents. Or better yet, don’t imagine it. Because it will never happen. Right?

skornacki@observer.com Look Who's Back: It's Gore and Lieberman in '08