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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Spirit of Party (November 22, 2000)
Florida, November 2000. Two partisans, one Republican and one Democrat. An imaginary dialogue. By Jack Beatty.

My Father's Politics (November 1, 2000)
Scott Stossel looks at George Packer's Blood of the Liberals and the plight of the would-be liberal today.

Does Gore Deserve to Win? (November 1, 2000)
An analysis by Jack Beatty of Gore's many failures -- and why none of them outweigh the importance of defeating Bush.

Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right -- the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected, Christopher Caldwell writes.

The New New South (September 13, 2000)
In recent decades the South has been a Republican stronghold. Times are changing, Christopher Caldwell writes.

The Tyranny of Belief (September 13, 2000)
Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, would blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided, Jack Beatty argues.

Leftward Bound (August 23, 2000)
Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks? Christopher Caldwell on Gore's gamble with Lieberman.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Gore in Aught-Four?

Why this may be the end of the line for Al Gore

by Christopher Caldwell

November 30, 2000

On the evening George W. Bush was certified the winner of Florida by 537 votes, former senator Bob Dole, one of Bush's surrogates, took a conciliatory, even complimentary tone. "Al Gore is a good person," Dole said. "He's got a good future ahead of him. And it may be determined on how he accepts this." Why do Republicans harp on Gore's future? Because they don't want Gore challenging Bush's narrow victory in court. It has not escaped their notice that Gore is waging his battle to overturn Florida's election as if it were Armageddon, as if this were the last shot at national office he will ever have. Republicans hope to take a bit of the pressure off Gore by reassuring him that he'll almost certainly get another chance at the brass ring four years from now.

Here's what Gore knows and Republicans only pretend not to: should his lawsuits and contests and court appeals fail, this is the last shot at national office Gore will ever have. If Gore loses, it's the end of the line. His liabilities are now such that he cannot even be considered the Democratic frontrunner for 2004.

First, he will have lost -- with a booming economy that he could take partial credit for, and against a weak rival. This is not to ignore that Gore won the popular vote nationwide, and that the 48 percent of the electorate he won is extremely respectable by Democratic standards. (Since the founding of the Republican Party on the eve of the Civil War, only two Democrats, FDR and LBJ, have ever received as much as 51 percent of the vote.) But that hasn't kept Democrats from grousing -- unfairly -- about the caliber of Gore's campaign. Only twice in the twentieth century was a major-party presidential candidate given a second crack at defeating an opponent he lost to. Adlai Stevenson was defeated by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. And William Jennings Bryan lost to William McKinley in 1896 and 1900. Both Stevenson and Bryan did far worse the second time out.

Second, there's more than historical precedent to suggest that Gore would fare poorly in a rematch. The aftermath of Florida's tight vote has inflicted long-term political damage on him, if the judgment of independent-minded liberal journalists is anything to go by. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post wrote in a recent column, "I voted for Al Gore. I did so because I have known him since he was a congressman from Tennessee. I admire his intellect, his seriousness of purpose, his capacity for hard work and study, his political values, his experience and his knowledge. That being said, I now think that under current circumstances he would not be the right man for the presidency. If I could, I would withdraw my vote." The archliberal New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser is of much the same mind: "I voted for Gore," she wrote, two days after certification of the results. "Now I regret it. Give it up, Al. It's over." The Washington Post's editorial page took the same line this week, albeit in a more circumspect way. "The candidates have left the court, and the country, no good choices," The Post opined. "But the court set a deadline; Mr. Gore wasn't able to win within it; and the court, in our judgment, needs to be awfully careful about granting him the further relief he now seeks."

While it's dangerous to extrapolate from a handful of pundits, the poll numbers in the public at large tell much the same story. Two weeks after the election, CNN found voters evenly split over whether they were willing to wait for a final resolution to the election or whether they thought it had gone on too long. In the wake of certification on November 26, the numbers lurched, and the country lined up 62-37 in the "gone on too long" column. Thirty-seven percent (including 33 percent of Gore supporters) thought the election process had done "permanent harm" to the country. And voters blame Gore. In the week after November 19, the percentage who said they would prefer Bush as President held steady; the percentage who preferred Gore dropped five points. By a margin of 51-15, voters consider Bush "the real winner" of Florida. Unfortunately for Gore, the extraordinary courtroom appeals he felt were necessary to achieve a win in Florida played to a longstanding character liability: throughout the campaign, polls asking voters to free-associate showed a high percentage of the public thought he "will say/do anything to get elected." It's true that people forget, and that candidates can change their public image. But it's safe to say that, however many electoral liabilities Gore brought into the 2000 presidential race, he would bring even more into the race in 2004.

Third, if we look at how the Democrats will counter an incumbent Bush in 2004, it's clear that Al Gore could already have a serious rival for the next nomination. Democrats looking for a 2004 win will be inclined in one of two directions. First, they could look ahead, hoping to pass party leadership to a younger generation. Gore, who will then be 56, would be pushed aside. Second, they could look back, seeking to recapture some of the magic of the Clinton years. But even if they do, Gore would not necessarily be the obvious carrier of the Clinton banner. By that time, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be (if she is not already) America's most prominent senator. It's true that she has promised to serve out her six-year term, but it's easy to envision a "Draft Hillary" movement importunate enough to make abrogating her promise look like answering a summons to patriotic duty. Hillary would have a mammoth fundraising advantage over Gore. Vice President is an easy perch from which to run for President. But (at least since Richard Nixon's 43-percent victory in 1968) ex-Vice President is not. The two ex-VP campaigns of recent decades were Walter Mondale's debacle in 1984 and Dan Quayle's dead-before-the-primaries failure in 1999.

Gore knows all this. That's why he has decided to go to such embarrassing lengths to wage an extra-electoral battle for the presidency. Three weeks after the election, he is still Churchillian in his resolve: He will fight them on the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, he will fight them on the chads, he will fight them on the military absentees, he will fight them on the Miami-Dade recount, he will fight them on the Seminole ballot applications ... he will never surrender.

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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

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