Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Maureen Dowd: Enter Ozone Woman

Al Gore must want to punch Hillary Clinton right through the hole in the ozone layer.
At the National Press Club here yesterday, the New York senator finally took a passionate stand.

After giving a courteous nod to her old rival Al as "a committed visionary on global warming," she purloined his issue and his revolution, going his Earth Tones in the Balance one better by wearing a blinding yellow pantsuit that looked as if it could provide solar power to all of Tennessee.

Apologizing for, while really wallowing in, her "wonkish speech," Hillary waxed rhapsodic about "unlocking the full potential of cellulosic ethanol" and getting "the low-sulfur diesel rule fully implemented."

She droned on numbingly about carbon dioxide sequestration, biomass liquid fuel bases, "feebate" tax incentives, hybrid plug-ins, flex-fueled vehicles, continuous reheat furnaces, renewable portfolio standards, Danish wind power, Brazilian ethanol and Kyoto greenhouse targets. (And you thought she was incomprehensible on health care.)

She got so far down in the weeds — or switch grass — that she advised her listeners about weatherizing their homes and checking their tires to save fuel.

"At every gas station," she chirped, "there ought to be a little sign which says, 'Have you checked to see if your tires are inflated to the right pressure?' "

She made it clear who's in power and who's in Cannes when she ostentatiously promised to take her motorcade back to Capitol Hill and introduce legislation for a strategic energy fund to jolt inert government and insatiable Big Oil into action.

Her timing is cunning. This is supposed to be Ozone Man's moment in the sun. His movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," opens today, buoyed by such raves that his supporters believe his green crusade could net him both a gold statuette and a white house.

He's being hailed as the new Comeback Kid, as New York magazine calls him, a passionate pedant. (Better than a compassionate conservative.)

Shaken by the Asian tsunami, Katrina, gas prices and a literally explosive Middle East, many Americans now see the environment and conservation as the scintillating, life-and-death subjects that Al Gore has always presented them as, rather than the domain of cartoonish sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, New Age-y, antibusiness wackos.

As John Heilemann notes in New York, the Gore boomlet is also driven by "the creeping sense of foreboding about the prospect of Hillary Clinton's march to her party's nomination."

Hollywood's top environmental campaigner, Laurie David, a producer on the Gore movie, argued, "It's not time to experiment with trying to put in office the first female president or with somebody people feel is such a polarizing figure."

Some Democrats are secretly compiling data to prove that Hillary is unelectable to derail the notion that she's inevitable. Gore loyalists suggest that they could be co-front-runners — a couple of raccoons in a bag.

The two hall monitors have always bumped against each other, first competing to be Bill Clinton's co-president, and then over Democratic money in the 2000 election.

So we are left with the prospect of a race between these two Democrats (Al, a popularly elected president; Hillary, a co-ruler). Neither was president, but both think they have been.

Al's a seeker and Hillary's a triangulator (or you might say she's inflating her tires to the right pressure).

They have shared the problem of stiff, situational personae, when they seemed to wake up every morning trying to figure out who they should be, how they should appear or how they should position themselves.

By fashioning their identities all the time, they condemned themselves to being seen merely as identity fashioners.

Hillary is keeping Bill at a distance so he doesn't overshadow her, contradict her, embarrass her or hurt her attempt to pander to the right.

But Al, who says he and Bill have made up and are now brotherly, may want to embrace the Big Dog this time, realizing the cost of muzzling him in 2000 (and the cost of taking hired guns' advice to soft-peddle the environment).

Since Hillary and Bill often rendezvous to watch "Grey's Anatomy" on Sunday nights, that's a good time for her to soak up his unmatched political smarts.

But as someone in Bill's circle wryly told Mr. Heilemann, the boy can't help himself: "You can see him talking to Hillary one minute, then ducking into his study to take Gore's call and advise him on how to beat her."

What a contest: two ersatz ex-presidents vying for the support of a real one.

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