Al Gore has emerged from his post-election hibernation, and he’s already being bashed for his beard, among other things. Of course, the criticism is not about his beard, per se. It’s about the underlying political strategy assumptions that caused him to grow a beard, because everyone believes everything about Gore is calculated.
Maybe this time he just wanted to grow a beard. Or, as Freud said, not in regard to Clinton, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
After the traumatic finish to the 2000 presidential election, Gore stepped back from the political stage, giving George W. Bush a fair chance to get his administration up and running while giving himself an opportunity to recover emotionally outside the public eye. Despite some urging to speak out sooner over tax or environmental issues, Gore has stuck to his timetable, which apparently is driven by the desire to build for another presidential bid to redeem the election that got away.
Whether Gore would have made a great president is still an open questionopen because his presidential ambitions are still intact and still credible. Certainly, he is a more serious candidate than Bush in terms of policy interests, and he has a broader vision of where he wants to go. But whether he could have translated that into an effective presidency given his awkward touch and obsessive style is not known. Similarly, the jury is still out on Bush, who seems to have a better managerial temperament even if he lacks ideas beyond a few knee-jerk conservative nostrums.
The expectation is that Gore will just keep right on running, trying not to lose any momentum from last fall. Word is already out, though, that many of the party’s top insiders wish he wouldn’t runnoting they believe he blew a winnable election and lacked the political skills of Bill Clinton.
Any time the election comes down to a handful of votes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the one or two small things that might have made a difference. But the “Al blew the election” critique moves beyond that, making the assertion that the election never should have been so close, given the prosperity of the times under a Democratic president. The argument goes that a more skillful politician such as Clinton would have been able to win.
A lot of that is suspect, however, as anyone who looks closely at the electoral map will see. A lot of the country simply was never in play, with the states being fairly well locked up for either the Democrats (California and the industrial belt from New England to the Midwest) or the Republicans (the Southeast and the mountain states). The outcome reflects the nation’s balanced political equilibriumand there is not much that any campaigner could have done to change that.
There are two points about Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996 to consider: First, neither race was a landslide; and second, the Ross Perot candidacy was critical in making the Democratic ticket viable in several states where it otherwise would not have succeeded. All that had changed by 2000:
♦ The level of prosperity was so great that the issue of the economy declined in salience relative to other voter concerns.
♦ Clinton had embarrassed himself and the party by the events leading up to the impeachment and trial. Despite deceptively high approval ratings, the incumbent president was useless as a campaign asset.
♦ The Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader drained strength from the Democrats in the same way Perot had drained the Republicans in the two previous elections.
♦ The weird accretion of factors kept Gore from realizing his victory in Florida. (He may never have been able to win the state on the basis of those factors being contested in court, but it is pretty clear that there were enough other factorssuch as the Palm Beach Buchanan votethat a true reflection of voter intent would have given him the state.)
♦ There were incredibly unrealistic expectations set for Gore in the presidential debates, such that Bush merely had to show himself to be a sentient being in order to hold his own in the forums.
Given all the things that worked against him, the marvel may be that Gore did as well as he did. As for Clinton, he may well go down in history as our most overrated politician. One television talking head may have summed up the Clinton phenomenon best when he said, “If Bill Clinton rode through a car wash in a convertible, Al Gore would get wet.” But the truth is that the problem reached beyond just Gore. A lot of people paid for Clinton’s failings. Clinton’s main accomplishment was really his ability to take a punch. Consider his survival of the countless scandals and failures that would have sunk other politicians: the dope-smoking, philandering, draft-dodging revelations that didn’t undo his 1992 campaign.
There were others: Clinton’s health reform initiative failed, despite the most encouraging political environment for action in 40 years; Monica; and, of course, the matter of fund-raising improprieties.
But the cost of surviving these things was the cathartic voter tantrum of 1994, wherein all manner of Democrats paid for Clinton’s failures. (Indeed, it is almost certainly why Don Sundquist got elected; if the state ever gets an income tax, talk radio obsessives won’t be entirely wrong if they choose to blame that on Clinton too.) After that election, Clinton was able to survive politically by throwing overboard the policies and objectives upon which he originally ran in 1992.
If standing for nothing but self-preservation is political genius, then perhaps political dunces like Al Gore and Don Sundquist aren’t so bad after all.
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