With his speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Al Gore stunned his running mate Joe Lieberman, and the editors at the New Republic. “Speechless” is how the house organ of the Gore campaign entitled its lead editorial.

“In the 1980s and 1990s,” wrote TNR, “Al Gore consistently battled the irresponsibility and incoherence of foreign affairs that plagued the Democratic Party. And it was partly out of admiration for that difficult and principled work that this magazine twice endorsed him for president.”

San Francisco, however, “sounded like a political broadside against a President who Gore no doubt feels occupies a post that he himself deserves.

But bitterness is not a policy position.”

Yet, watching Gore live, his speech seemed less marked by the bitterness of a candidate who believes he was robbed, than by the canny calculation of a poker player who believes he is drawing to a winning hand – but not until two more cards are dealt.

Had Gore signed on to Bush’s war, as Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards have done, how would it have availed him? Does TNR think that if U.S. Marines are patrolling Baghdad’s streets by spring, George Bush will share the glory?

Politically, no one can get to the Right of a president who, in Kevin Phillips’ phrase, makes Barry Goldwater sound like Mahatma Gandhi. The coming war on Iraq will be “Bush’s War,” and for the consequences of the peace, Bush will be held accountable.

Gore knows this. By offering Democrats a choice, not an echo, he shows some of the savvy of another candidate who believed the presidency had been stolen from him, and who gambled and won the White House in 1968: Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon used to counsel Republican candidates: Run to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general. In Gore’s party, the way to upend an establishment choice is the way George McGovern did it: Rally the Left. And the issue about which the Left cares most passionately is peace. Has Gore then become a McGovernite dove?

By no means. What he just did is preempt Vermont’s Howard Dean, an attractive antiwar candidate and Sen. John Kerry, who was moving to position himself as Bush’s leading critic on the war. As for Tom Daschle, he is in a box and shows it. The nation backs Bush, wants Congress to authorize war, and will punish those who refuse to give Bush the power to launch war. For Daschle’s Democrats to defy the president means the loss of both Houses in four weeks. But to vote for a war the Left opposes is to make them Poodles of Perle.

To save their seats, Democrats are resignedly signing on to a rewrite of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, agonizingly aware that in 2004 their votes will be far less impressive than Gore’s defiance.

Yet, Gore’s speech was risky. The Israeli Lobby for which TNR is conscious echo has been among Gore’s strongest supporters. It is wild for war and exhilarated by the prospect of America smashing half a dozen Arab radical and rogue regimes as well as Tehran, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Democratic Leadership Council is surely appalled to see the party front-runner cede to George W. Bush the patriot card in 2002.

But Al Gore is not running in 2002. He is running in 2004, and while there is a near certainty the United States will crush Iraq and Bush could be at 90% again in six months, in 2004, it will not be America’s victory people are talking about, but the complications and costs of America’s empire. While there is irrational exuberance today about “democratizing” the Islamic world, this enterprise is about as likely to succeed as was LBJ’s grand scheme to “build a Great Society on the Mekong.”

Gore’s opposition to preemptive war has already begun to pay dividends. Edward Kennedy and Bill Clinton have taken the same stand, giving Gore the aspect of a leader, not a loner. Critics who derided Gore for deferring to consultants now credit him for courage and independence. And the Hollywood Left, whose cash and concerts are crucial when campaign reform takes hold, has been impressed by Gore’s break with Bush on the peace issue.

As war looms, look for Gore to move patriotically beside Bush as Commander-in-Chief, while dissenting from the First Diplomat on his failure to create a great war coalition. And when the war is won and “sorrows come…not single spies, But in battalions,” look for Gore to challenge Bush for squandering the sacrifices of our fighting sons, as another former vice president did in 1968.