What if Al Gore had been more like Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador?
What if he had not merely demanded a recount in Florida but encouraged Democrats to pour out into the streets, rather than discouraging them?
For that matter, what if Kerry had called for demonstrations after Ohio?
I'm not simply having a lefty reverie about a Gore presidency; one in which Richard Clark was not turned away from the State Department door; in which the government was put on vacation just before the warning 9/11 memo came in; in which had 9/11 happened (as it might well have not), our actual enemies had been confronted with an appropriate strategy; in which the federal courts were not stocked, top to bottom, with right-wing extremists; in which global warming had been addressed immediately.
No, I'm willing to concede that hundreds of thousands of people could have poured into the streets and the Supreme Court would have still handed the White House to W. The hard fact is that the Republicans had the Court and they had Congress, just as it is quite likely that Felipe Calderón will become President of Mexico.
But even if the Mexican rightist does take office, by calling his followers out into the streets, Obrador has already accomplished something essential that Gore failed to do: he has made it clear that in a completely divided country, the right cannot pursue a unilateral agenda without engendering civil unrest.
And that, by itself, is a major achievement.
The history of the United States from the Florida debacle to today has been a history of tests, where Republicans pushed to see how far they could go, and Democrats stepped back.
When Gore refused to call supporters out into the streets (and even actively discouraged fighting Democrats from doing so), the Republicans sent jacket-and-tie wearing thugs into the counting rooms and stopped the tally.
When Democrats refused to revolt against a change in Senate rules which allowed right-wing judicial nominees to be brought to the Senate floor without the consent of both of a state's Senators, the Republicans knew there would be no filibusters. They threatened their "nuclear option" and managed to put Roberts and Alito on the Supreme Court.
When the chairman of Diebold declared he would do whatever necessary to get Bush elected in Ohio and Democrats meekly accepted the use of Diebold machines, they allowed for the possibility of fraud.
And, of course, when Colin Powell lied to the United Nations and was not challenged, the Republicans knew they could pursue the Iraq war.
On the other hand, when there was popular push-back, even this administration has caved. That's what happened on Social Security and that's what happened on immigration, the latter a case where people did come out into the streets and had an enormous effect on the debate. (Indeed, on immigration, Bush has been flip-flopping like a landed fish, trying desperately to adjust his position to two radically opposed - but equally strong and vocal - sources of public pressure.)
The immigration protests are particularly relevant - Latinos threatened civil unrest, and the power of that threat was remarkable.
The Latinos who poured into the streets weren't waiting for an elected leader, of course, and that, too, is instructive.
Where were we?
Many of us are old enough to know the power of civil unrest. We went into the streets and ended segregation. We went into the streets and ended the Vietnam War. Let's not forget that the Kennedy White House was so opposed to Freedom Summer that they refused to allow Freedom Riders the sanctuary of sleeping on federal property, even when asked. That it took years for elected Democratic dissidents to challenge Johnson.
Why didn't we ignore Gore and Kerry's cries for calm?
The truth is that at the moment, Gore may well be the most attractive Presidential candidate the Democrats have, no matter what he currently claims. He was truly against the Iraq war and he's managed to put global warming onto the national agenda in a truly significant way.
But whoever the nominee is, we must assume that the country will be as divided in 2008 as it is today, and that Republicans will be as ruthless in 2008 as they were in 2000.
We can't rely on mainstream Democrats to push back - not unless we're willing to take some responsibility ourselves. We can't stand idly at a candidate's back. We are going to have to do some pushing ourselves.
So the answer to the question "what if Gore had been more like Obrador" is actually another question:
Are we on the left willing to take responsibility and once again become unafraid of civil unrest?
Are we willing to be more like the Mexican people?