But Dole went even further than many of his party mates (including the defeated Bush). He trumpeted the specious notion that because Clinton netted only 43 percent of the popular vote in the three-way race, he—Dole, the ranking Republican in the federal government—was the rightful representative of the other 57 percent. Other Republicans followed his lead, treating Clinton as a usurper. And when Dole tried to unseat Clinton in 1996, the Republican asserted that the news media were trying to “steal” the election from him.
Dole’s attitude stemmed from a conviction that had taken hold of Republicans during the Reagan-Bush years. Ronald Reagan’s two landslides, followed by Bush’s decisive defeat of the Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, had fostered an assumption that Republicans were somehow the “majority party” and had a lock on the White House. When Bill Clinton debated whether to run for president in 1992, Hillary Clinton warned him that the Republicans considered themselves “anointed,” almost entitled by natural law to win the presidency every time. Clinton’s victory did not dispel the resentment: Throughout Clinton’s presidency, Republicans branded him as “illegitimate” and hounded him with bullshit investigations, over trivial incidents now rightly forgotten. These culminated, of course, in their drive to impeach him for lying about his extramarital affair.
The 2000 election between Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush also led to allegations of illegitimacy—this time against the Republican victor. Excruciatingly close on Election Night, the outcome came down to Florida, where voters more or less deadlocked. After a notoriously drawn-out legal fight, the Supreme Court decreed that Florida had to stop counting its votes mid-process, thus preserving a slender and tentative lead for Bush (537 out of 6 million ballots cast). Three factors in particular rendered that result questionable. First was the surmise, later borne out, that a true measure of Florida voters’ preferences may have shown Gore to be the rightful winner; the truncated count, along with a probably illegal ballot design, ensured that those preferences weren’t properly registered. Second, Republicans had resorted to mob violence to shut down one of the recounts. Finally, the Supreme Court ruling was blatantly partisan, recognized by scholars as a shoddy piece of argumentation, approaching outright sophistry. Many Democrats believed quite reasonably that the election had been, if not stolen (because the Supreme Court’s involvement made the outcome legal by definition), then at least expropriated.
After September 11, Democrats’ arguments that the younger Bush was not a legitimate president faded. But the disaster of the Iraq War revived anti-Bush feeling. In 2004, he managed to eke out a second election victory, prevailing, again, by just one state—in this case Ohio. This time, a handful of conspiracist critics claimed, falsely, that Ohio had been “stolen,” much as Florida had been in 2000, and although these theories never gained extensive support, they reflected a more widespread implacability among Democrats. Democrats kept Bush on the ropes for most of his second term. Congressional leaders resisted calls from their base to impeach Bush, but his approval ratings plunged to levels equal to those of repudiated Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.