WASHINGTON - Just when you think the 2000 presidential campaign can sink no lower, someone proves you wrong. In this case, it is Vice President Al Gore.
The vice president's decision to break with the White House and the Justice Department in the Elian Gonzalez case is such an obvious and shameless political reaction to the crisis that it is hard to imagine it won't backfire in the end.
But throughout the year, both Mr. Gore and his Republican opponent, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, have followed the theory that shamelessness pays off and both have prospered by doing so.
In this case, however, there is a little more involved. Mr. Gore is, after all, a prominent figure in an administration that has decided on a policy in the Gonzalez case with every reason to believe there would be no significant public defections from that policy. As recently as Wednesday, the president reiterated his support for the approach being taken by the Justice Department under the immigration laws.
Now the vice president has blown that assumption to smithereens by putting himself on record behind bills in Congress to give the boy and his family permanent resident status so he would not face deportation. Mr. Gore said the matter should be decided by the courts rather than the immigration authorities, thus siding with Cuban-Americans in Miami who want the case to go through the state family court.
The political quality of the gesture was obvious. What is less obvious is the hazard involved in the vice president going his own way. By so doing, Mr. Gore may have substantially contributed to the risks that the highly emotional controversy, already had a volatile level in Miami, will explode into violence.
Local politicians in Miami already have been talking for the cameras about how they want to avoid violence while warning in advance that if violence occurs, the blame will rest with President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno as the formulators of the policy that would return the little boy to his father in Cuba.
Such rhetoric from these tinhorn politicians isn't surprising even if it is disheartening. They are playing to the well-established and obsessive Cuban-American hostility toward Fidel Castro and his regime. They seem compelled to make the point that the blame will lie elsewhere if the whole thing goes up in smoke in the next few days.
But now we have the vice president of the United States juxtaposing himself against the government he hopes to lead a year from now and thus giving aid and comfort to the cheap politics being played in Miami. If that isn't an invitation to irresponsibility, it is hard to image a clearer one.
This is an action, moreover, that flies in the face of the policy Mr. Gore has followed throughout most of the campaign. On policy matters, as opposed to questions about President Clinton's personal behavior, the vice president has separated himself only on issues on which it was easy for Mr. Clinton to say it was indeed time for a fresh approach.
Thus, for example, when Mr. Gore came up with his new plan for campaign finance reform the other day, Mr. Clinton quickly embraced it, even telling reporters with a straight face that he wished he had thought of it himself.
Mr. Gore and his advisers seemed to understand that, on balance, it was a plus to be identified with an administration that has presided over seven years-plus of an economy running at record levels. And he also seemed to believe that eight years at the side of the president and being closely identified with his programmatic successes was an asset.
Opinion polls confirm those notions. The best thing Al Gore has going for him in this campaign is that Americans don't want to rock the boat.
But this is a situation of high intensity in Florida, and the vice president apparently felt he was on the wrong side of the issue to compete for all those electoral votes in November. So he took the option of making a shameless gesture. Why not? It's worked all year.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).