Al Gore is the Gold Standard

The first round of debates is over, the second round has started, and the oddly compressed primary season in the presidential contest is in full swing. If only there were someone to vote for out of the entire bunch.

Here's a thumbnail scouting report on the division leaders.

Rudy Giuliani. The candidate who makes national defense his campaign theme is the same one who put New York City's emergency coordination operation into the World Trade Center -- the same World Trade Center that had been the target of a terrorist bomb in 1993. The only reason Giuliani was running around lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 was that his command center was crashing -- along with the 5,000 gallons of fuel oil stored beneath it. Good call.

John McCain. McCain is and always has been a mainstream conservative. Because that type of politician is traditionally so obedient, the fact that McCain actually took the other side of an issue led the press to brand him as a "maverick." McCain played the "maverick" better than James Garner or Mel Gibson (pick your generation). He was so successful, that he's now trying to reclaim his original political views and is being branded as having abandoned the independent streak he never really had.

Mitt Romney. He was for everything before he was against them. Gays, guns, whatever.

Fred Thompson. The Republicans want to drag out another aging, right-wing actor? He won his Senate seat by ditching the "K Street" suits he wore and fancy cars he drove as a Washington lobbyist in favor of driving around Tennessee in a flannel shirt and a pickup truck. How believable is that? Do you think anybody in New York would vote for a guy from Tennessee for District Attorney?

The Democrats:

Hillary Clinton. Her biggest asset is the money-raising prowess of Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. We should feel sorry for her. She spent six years in the Senate burnishing her centrist credentials, only to find now at showtime that the country shifted away from her. Clinton likes living on the edge. She was for the war before she was against it, but she stays balanced on the thin blade by not admitting it was wrong to oppose the war in the first place. She says she didn't know better. Lots of others did, though.

Barack Obama. This Harvard-educated veteran of squeaky-clean Illinois state politics has been in the U.S. Senate not quite two and a half years. He's an inspiring speaker and for many people is a blank slate onto which they project their hopes. Is there a there there? I hope we don't find out before it's too late.

John Edwards. He at least served one full term in the Senate, and it wasn't at all certain he would win a second term when he bailed. He tanked the 2004 vice presidential debate against Darth Cheney and didn't help John Kerry much at all in the South. At least he's made good use of his time since then, at least he regrets having voted for the war, and at least he has a good progressive platform.

The rest of the bunches.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have lots of people running. By and large, the Democrats have more experience and better records than the Republicans, but it's hard for anyone outside of their immediate families to picture them as president.

So, who's left? The man who isn't there, that's who. If nothing else, Al Gore is a yardstick against which all the other candidates should be measured. At this moment, Gore is the gold standard. He's been through the most wrenching experience a politician can have. He won the irrelevant popular vote by 500,000, lost the vote that counted by one, 5-4 in the Supreme Court. He went into a bitter exile and, phoenix-like, emerged the better, stronger, more exuberant person for it.

Forget for the moment that he has become the most celebrated environmentalist since Rachel Carson. That's a bonus -- a crucial, important bonus, but a bonus nonetheless. Look at how far ahead he has been, and how right he has been, on crucial issues.

Instead, focus on a speech he gave about Iraq and foreign policy. Gore said, "The course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century." Candidates in the Democratic debates are saying that now. Gore said that on Sept. 23, 2002, when he criticized President Bush for bullying Congress into voting war powers on the eve of the mid-term election.

He recognized, and wasn't afraid to say, that the war would wreck our relations with the rest of the world, and recognized the big problem after the war: "the administration has not said much of anything to clarify its idea of what would follow regime change or the degree of engagement that it is prepared to accept for the United States in Iraq in the months and years after a regime change has taken place."

If that's not enough, then look back to last year, Jan. 16, 2006, in a speech Gore gave at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. It would be another year before national Democrats would find their voice, but Gore's was clear: "A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government." He ripped into Bush and into Alberto Gonzales for the domestic spying and the unilateral power to imprison anyone, for the torture. He noted that George Tenet, he of current book tour, capitulated in falsifying information. And he took on the do-nothing Republican Congress: "But the legislative branch of government as a whole, under its current leadership, now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the executive branch."

The then-blossoming scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff "is but the tip of a giant iceberg threatening the integrity of our legislative branch of government." Think about that when you read about another resignation of yet another political appointee doing the work of the industry the appointee's agency is supposed to supervise.

Gore is someone who has seen the challenges to our country through the informed filters of history and experience, more so than anyone running for the top job now. He may not be the best campaigner (although he did win, after all), but there's little doubt about how great a president he would be.

He's been through a lot, and finally may be in the best place of all, doing what he wants to do, spreading the word on important matters, making a difference and, not coincidentally, making a lot of money. He's got a new book coming out, The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy, and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-Making, Degrade Our Democracy, and Put Our Country and Our World in Peril, which will take the global view of our political and social institutions that he took with climate change. Even if there may not be a movie or slide show in it, the book is bound to be instructive and insightful not only for voters, but for the candidates who would lead the world.