For Gore, it's now or never

The vice president is fighting this election battle to the death, because he knows he'll never get another shot.

Published December 2, 2000 1:09AM (EST)

There's a reason Vice President Al Gore is fighting the presidential election results: His political future is hanging in the balance. Even though, historically, winners of the popular vote who are denied the White House have redeemed themselves, Al Gore's chances of getting another crack at the presidency are long at best. In short, if he loses this election, Gore's political career is toast.

If Gore loses this election, he will be the fourth man in American history to win the popular vote but be denied the White House. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams, but it was only a postponement. Four years later Jackson walloped Adams in the rematch. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote and won the Oval Office by a fluke (the Democratic House voted Colorado into the Union; Colorado's 3 electoral votes cost Samuel Tilden the election). The Democratic nomination was Tilden's for the asking, but he withdrew at the convention in June 1880. And in 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in the course of losing to Benjamin Harrison. In 1892, Cleveland came back to beat Harrison convincingly.

Indeed, much of the political sentiment today seems ready to award Gore the office in 2004. The day after the election, Tim Russert said that Gore could be a "shadow president" and would be "almost a de facto nominee in 2004." Michael Beschloss said that Gore "would have an opportunity to be almost a shadow president over the next four years." Dick Morris wrote that Gore should "use the popular indignation over the illegitimacy of the Bush triumph to get the nomination and win the election four years hence." Predicting a Gore concession, Linda Monk, author of "The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide," wrote: "Vice President Al Gore is more likely to quit because he knows he has another chance. If Gore withdraws gracefully, he will be the anointed hero and shadow president until 2004."

But the best indication of Gore's political future came from DNC head Ed Rendell on Election Night. Moments after the networks declared Bush the winner, Rendell appeared on television denouncing the vice president. He should have used President Clinton more, Rendell said. He shouldn't have pulled money out of Ohio. He should have at least carried Clinton's home state of Arkansas. The race, said Rendell, had always been Gore's to lose. Rendell was described as "furious." Talk to certain Democratic operatives and you already hear the half-joking refrain: Gray Davis-Dick Gephardt '04!

The real historical analogy for Gore isn't 1824, 1876, 1888 or even Nixon in 1960. It's 1998. The election fight is the impeachment fight, and it's to the death. The great modern political lesson that Bill Clinton taught America is this: Victory is vindication. Be it healthcare in 1994 or the government shutdown in 1995 or impeachment in 1998, now, more than ever, might makes right. And if Al Gore loses he isn't going to be Jackson, Cleveland or Nixon. He'll be Newt Gingrich.

That is the reason he will fight this election until the bitter, putrid end. Until the last elector has cast his vote. There will be no concession, no admission of defeat. Al Gore is fighting like a man for whom there is no tomorrow -- because for him, there isn't.

Democrats have never been happy with Gore. He was a respected senator, but his 1988 presidential bid showed a man ill-suited to national politics. In the debates he established his trademark robotic style. And among political operatives he began to develop a reputation for exaggeration after his staff was forced to walk him back from several potential untruths. But this time around, Gore was rewarded for his loyalty to Clinton and handed the nomination by the Democratic Party establishment despite his known shortcomings. (Since the Civil War only two other vice presidents of two-term presidents have run. One of them won -- George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- while one of them lost -- Richard Nixon in 1960.)

And with the nomination came almost certain victory. The economy was soaring, America was at peace, his boss's approval ratings were still high. His opponent was a political newcomer whom Democrats routinely dismissed as a dunce. He led in the polls at Labor Day (a certain sign of victory, until this year). He led in every major poll on Sept. 22 and led in many polls during the first week of October.

Yet Gore managed to bungle the election. He changed his HQ and his wardrobe. He hectored and he pandered; remember when he posited that "the principle of a woman's right to choose governs" when asked whether or not pregnant women should be executed? He selected a New Democrat running mate and then ran to the left with middle-class populism. And by trying to cover all flanks of the party, he also gave everyone in it a reason to distrust, if not revile, him.

Mind you, they still turned out for him. Eight years in the White House had convinced Democrats that winning is better than losing, and so the party's base went to the polls in record numbers. (No matter how things end, the great story of the election is the mega-muscle shown by organized labor and blacks.) But not because they liked Al Gore. In fact, many party leaders secretly grumbled about how poorly Gore was running the campaign.

And if Gore loses, those same Democrats will abandon him in an instant. He will not be allowed within a country mile of the nomination in 2004. Already big Democratic donors have blasted the vice president for running an abysmal campaign, and it's unlikely they'd be willing to pony up the big bucks necessary for Gore to make another run at the White House. Moderates in the Democratic Leadership Council will blame Gore for running with lefty populism, orthodox liberals will blame him for not abandoning all of his New Democrat positions. Each wing of the party will blame Gore for embracing the ideology of the other and in the end, neither will claim him as their own.

However even if the party faithful weren't allayed against him, Gore would be hard-pressed to gain the Democratic nomination again. Candidates were once routinely allowed a losing general election campaign or two. Henry Clay, Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon all lost elections yet lived to run again. But that capacity for forgiveness disappeared decades ago. Modern campaigns are too big, too dynamic and too expensive to entrust to a loser. Political parties now treat candidates the way the Air Force treats fighter pilots: No matter how good you are, crash once and you never fly again.

By Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for The Weekly Standard.

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