He's smart and he's rich. He knows Wall Street and Washington. He helped build the longest economic boom on record. Even Republicans revere him. Yet the real reason Al Gore should pick Bob Rubin to be his vice president goes beyond the obvious: He's the one man in America who can make the world safe again for liberalism.
Why? Start with Rubin's temperament. Sure, he's cagey, or he couldn't have run Goldman Sachs or wowed them up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet the man carries himself humbly. When I worked for Clinton in the early years, staffers loved to imitate the soft-spoken preface Rubin invariably offered in economic policy meetings. "Well, it's just one man's opinion," he would stammer, or, "I'm hardly an expert on this, but ..." From a man of his stature, this brand of modesty, even if an act, set a tone that made it easier for high-powered egos to share credit and get things done. And if Rubin was sincere, why, so much the better: That's just the kind of mind you want near the helm in a fast-changing world.
Then there's Rubin's hyperrational, "probabilistic" approach to decision-making, best detailed in Jacob Weisberg's helpful 1998 profile in the New York Times Magazine. This isn't Robert McNamara's fatal belief in the ability of Reason to solve all human problems. It's more nearly the opposite: the trader's instinct for coping rationally with a crazed, unknowable world. Rubin's determination to coolly assess options and the likelihood of various outcomes sounds pretty elementary. But this sang-froid is rare and indispensable in crises (like the Asian meltdown) when the stakes are high and those around you are losing their heads. It's a quality he plainly thinks about: Rubin is the only former official I know who makes the process of governmental decisionmaking a central theme of his speeches. He urges citizens to judge officials not on the outcomes of their decisions, which often turn on unknowable intervening events, but on whether they wisely evaluated the information available at the time a decision had to be made. To judge otherwise, he argues, makes leaders too cautious too often.
This modest rationality is not what you ordinarily associate with Utopian liberal schemers. What makes Rubin's secret appeal so promising is that he'd pull Gore, and the country, to the left. Here's why. The main thing standing between America's current bounty and a sane run at LBJ's unfinished-agenda is the Republican drive to use...