The race was tight because the runners were so alike
By Roger Simon
U.S. News and World Report Cover Story 11/20/00
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Quoted||In America, anyone can become
president. That's one of the risks we take. When Adlai
Stevenson expressed that sentiment decades ago, he was
being sardonic. Today, that comment looks like popular
wisdom. Why was this the closest election in American
history? Not because the candidates were so different,
but because they were so similar. In modern times,
similar candidates with similar goals market themselves
to the American people in similar ways. Close elections
usually signify a great divide over a key issue or
crisis. Not this one. There is surely a split in the
votes of men and women, marrieds and singles, whites and
blacksbut outside of Washington, D.C., it may not
matter very much. "If anything, this is a testament
to the social stability of the United States as it enters
the 21st century; I don't see a great social divide
ripping this country apart," says presidential
historian Gil Troy. "It also signifies the growing
irrelevance of politics to the lives of many
Americans may be forgiven if they appeared to apportion their votes by a coin flip. When you can turn on your TV set and see the two candidates being warm, fuzzy, and winsome with Oprah or Letterman or Leno, it's hard to see much difference between them or draw any political lessons from their performances. It's not that George W. Bush and Al Gore are identical or without ideologies or have the same view of government. But as they ran for president they relentlessly downplayed their ideologies in a mad dash to the center of the American political spectrum. And they did it for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: That's where the payoff is.
It is 12:46 a.m. on Election Day and a brilliant half-moon hangs over Miami as if it had been cut from yellow construction paper and pasted on a black satin sky. A warm breeze with the iodine smell of the ocean blows over the sand dunes and ruffles the hair of Al Gore. He has gone without sleep for more than 24 hours now, but he cannot rest. "Be not weary in well-doing," he told the parishioners of the New Jerusalem Gospel Church in Flint, Mich., a few hours before, quoting the Apostle Paul. "You shall reap if you faint not." Gore is fainting not. Gore knows Florida will make or break him. As do the celebrities on the stage behind him: Stevie Wonder, Ben Affleck, Glenn Close, Robert De Niro, and Jon Bon Jovi, among others. Gore and his press corps walk over the sand, ignoring the boxes of multicolored flip-flops that have been provided for their convenience. They are too tired to take off their shoes and socks anyway. Ben Affleck, wearing an unbuttoned blue shirt over a white T-shirt, is speaking to the huge crowd. Klieg lights make sand glow an intense white. Behind the stage, you can see boats cruising slowly by with lights in their rigging. "George Bush is a nice guy, but I've got friends like that and I would never lend them my car, let alone vote for them!" Affleck says, reading off a notecard. A woman in a black tube top, gold pants, and a bare midriff with a diamond navel ring dances in the rear of the crowd. "I've been in a working family and now I'm in another tax bracket," Affleck says, "and I'm here to tell Governor Bush, 'Thanks, but we don't need the money.' George Bush is asleep right now and Al Gore hasn't gotten started yet!"
"I'll fight for you." Ben Affleck is a surrogate, a supporter of Gore. He gets to say the things that Gore does not. When Gore takes the stage, he is gravel-throated and passionate, but he stays away from anything resembling a personal attack. "I am getting a very powerful message from your cheers, from your faces, from the feeling in your hearts we are going to carry Florida," Gore says, jacketless, but wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a red tie. "We're going to win the White House! Are you ready to win? Will you fight to win? Are we going to win?" The crowd roars. "I am for the people, not the powerful. I want to fight for you and your families and your future and your communities, not the wealthy, not the well connected. Are you with me?" The crowd continues to roar. "My friends, South Florida is a place where America's future is being born. And I came here on Election Dayjust barelyto ask for not only your vote and your commitment but your enthusiasm and your heart because that's what's required. I know, as I've said before, that I won't always be the most exciting politician. But I will work hard for you every day, and I'll never let you down. And I'll fight for you with all my heart, and we'll win these battles together."
As much as they could, Gore and Bush avoided hot-button issues like abortion and gun control for fear of scaring off middle-of-the road voters. "Both campaigns are going after the same undecideds," a senior Gore aide said just before Election Day. "Undecideds classically break for the challenger, but who is the challenger? Is Bush the challenger? Are we the incumbent? Who knows? We do know that the voters don't want big change; they just want some change." So each campaign played it very carefully, reducing their messages to a few, nonideological words. Bush wanted to be "a uniter, not a divider." Gore was "fighting for you." And if those slogans summoned up no sharp policy differences, that's because it was intended that way. Gore is a "new" Democrat, which means, among other things, he supports such formerly conservative causes as the death penalty. Bush is a "compassionate" conservative, which means, among other things, that he has moderate views on issues like immigration, was careful not to be seen with such divisive figures as Pat Robertson, and downplayed the role at the Republican convention of party conservatives who were out front in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Even when Bush let his guard slip and indulged in old politics, he got little coverage from a media obsessed with the likability and performance abilities of the two candidates. When Bush launched an attack in Perrysville, Pa., on "thinkers," "planners and thinkers," and "thinkers and planners and plotters in the nation's capital," it received scant attention. It is hardly a surprise that the two major parties have produced similar candidates. To get a major-party nomination, Republican or Democratic, the same qualities are necessary: a certain amount of name recognition, which gives you the ability to raise vast sums of money, which allows you to go on TV, increase your name recognition, and raise even vaster sums of money. That George Bush, with a much thinner political résumé than Al Gore, was able to fight him to what appears to be a draw, demonstrates how little Americans care about political service. Bush understood (as Clinton did) that campaigns are not about service but seduction. Al Gore viewed the presidential campaign as a job interview; George Bush viewed it as a date.
There is a danger in running an innocuous campaign, however. In the primaries, where passions run higher, a candidate of true excitement can come along and sweep voters off their feet. Bush faced this problem with John McCain and avoided defeat only by veering away from the center and dashing over to Bob Jones University to embrace the right wing of his party. It is a testament to his campaign abilities that he was able to make voters forget this in the general election. Gore had no trouble defeating Bill Bradley, who was so challenged as a campaigner that he was unable to defend himself even when the facts were on his side. But he was nonetheless seriously bruised by Bradley, who imprinted on the public mind the notion that Gore was a serial prevaricator. (Both McCain and Bradley would later endorse the men they had railed against, another reason the public believes that politics is just a vast game played by and for professionals, who care more about power than ideals.)
It is easier to avoid extremes and follow a safe path down the middle of the road in good times, but the good economic times in America actually proved to be a challenge for both candidates. Critic after critic attacked Gore for not being able to obtain credit for the good economy, without ever explaining how he was supposed to do it. Vice presidents rarely get credit for anything, which may be why only four sitting vice presidents have been voted into office, only one in modern times. That one, George Bush, facing as inept a campaigner as Michael Dukakis, still had to raise the specter of Willie Horton and challenge Dukakis's patriotism in order to win. Unable to get credit for good times, Gore knew that at the very least he had to portray himself as the good steward who would prevent George Bush from screwing things up. "Prosperity is on the ballot!" Gore would tell crowds. "We have come to a fork in the road." Or, as Slate editor Michael Kinsley satirized it: "You've never had it so good, and I'm mad as hell about it." Bush faced the problem of Democratic good times by pandering to the public's ingratitude: It was "the hard work of the American people," not the plotters and planner and thinkers in Washington, that had brought about an economic miracle, and ordinary citizens should let no one else take credit for it.
Gore's shtick. Gore had one campaign riff that he loved to use at the end of his speeches. In it, he imagined the two fates that could befall him: "I want you to consider just for a moment how you'll feel when you wake up on Wednesday morning," he would say. "There are two alternatives. Here's the first one. You wake up with a splitting headache and you hear a hard cold driving rain mixed with sleet and a little hail hammering against the windowpane. And you stumble out of bed, and your knees hurt. You walk toward the front door, and you stub your toe and open the door. You see the newspaper is soaked completely through. The bottom of it is stuck to the stoop by the sleet. And you dig it loose and peel off the front page and hold it up to the light and you see: 'Bush.' "
The crowds would groan and shout "No!" at this point, but Gore would go on: "There is another option. It's early Wednesday morning, and in the seconds before you awaken a shaft of golden sunlight flickers on your eyelids." Here he would make flickering motions with his hands, and the crowds would always laugh. "You hear the sweet sound of songbirds on the windowsill. The smell of the fresh-cut flowers on the table by the bed mingles with the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee wafting in from the kitchen. Your favorite song comes on the clock radio. You leap out of bed. And you dance your way to the front door and you fling open the door to the warm rays of that sun, and you pick up that newspaper and it says: 'Gore, Lieberman Win!' We're going to win. Let's do it. Let's fight! Let's win."
Gore, however, forgot the third alternative: the paper that said "Too Close to Call." Voters did not find one man much more compelling than the other. That could be because the two men lacked compelling differences, but it could also be because the media is so relentless in pursuit of any flaws, no matter how old or how sillya 24-year-old drunk-driving arrest for Bush vs. the fact that Gore sighed during a debatethat candidates are never put on a pedestal but always are in danger of being buried under one. Why should the public become passionate about a candidate when people know that candidate will soon be shredded? Roger Ailes, George Bush's media wizard in 1988, once said, "A presidential campaign is about cartoons. The media insists on them. They want every candidate's image summed up in a few words." In 1988, that meant Bush was "The Wimp" and Dukakis was "The Cold Guy." In 2000, the cartoons were not only clear but could have been drawn by Walt Disney: It was Pinocchio vs. Dumbo. The debates, which were supposed to allow each candidate to break out of his cartoon image, changed few minds. They did, however, teach Al Gore something. He really did imagine that voters would compare one candidate with the other, examining their wisdom, judgment, abilities, and experience and choose that candidate who was the best and the brightest. To his horror he discovered that voters had a much different view, a view the Bush campaign identified early on as the "bar of competence" view. Once a candidate met or exceeded the bar of competence, the Bush staff argued, voters were satisfied that candidate could do the job of president and they began looking at other qualities like likability. So who "won" the debate was not the point. Voters looked at the debates not as intellectual competitions as much as coming-out parties (or cattle shows), where they could take a look at the candidates and see how they felt about them. Few minds were changed. Gore supporters found Bush hopelessly inadequatehe did not even know how many people he was looking forward to executing in Texasand Bush supporters found Gore unable to avoid lies and exaggerations, even when they were gratuitous, as when he claimed to have taken a trip with a federal official that never took place.
Gore trailed in the polls, sometimes in double digits, throughout most of the campaign. Instructively, the exceptions came when Gore managed to break out of the cartoon. By boldly picking Joe Lieberman as his vice president, by humanizing himself with a warm kiss and a passionate speech on the evening of his nomination, he was able to make voters think about him in a new way. What caused the polls (assuming they were really measuring anything, which is a big assumption) to change? The Pinocchio image reasserted itself when Gore attacked the movie industry for marketing sex and violence to young children and then went to Hollywood to scoop up more money from movie moguls. What caused Gore to gain ground at the end? The public learned Bush might be a Pinocchio, too, by being far less than candid about an old drunk-driving conviction.
Brave face. For such a hard-fought campaign, however, there was little exuberance and, until election night, little excitement. Gore's desire to win was abundant, but he usually looked like he was doing homework. And Bush constantly looked as if running for president was something to be endured, not enjoyed. Watching the two campaign was like watching O. J. Simpson's low-speed car chase: It was an interesting diversion, but it seemed to lack relevance. Still, the campaigns struggled to maintain a brave face. On November 6, the Washington Times printed an interview with Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, saying that Bush would win around 320 electoral votes and would carry the popular vote by 5 to 7 percentage points. Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley, who had Democratic internal polls that he assumed were very similar to Republican internal polls, knew Rove was blowing smoke. At 4:45 a.m. on the morning of Election Day, standing in a cafeteria trying in vain to get fried eggs at a Gore campaign stop, Daley took from his pocket a single piece of paper and showed it to a reporter from U.S. News. "By this count, we get to 262 in the Electoral College and we only need 8 votes from smaller states," Daley said. "If we deny Bush Florida, I think we win." Denying Bush Florida is something the Gore campaign is still trying to do, however.
It is the day after the election, and a small pool of reporters is summoned to the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas. As they wait, a deliveryman arrives with a bouquet of gold and yellow flowers. At just after noon, the pool is taken to a patio area, which has a small pond and tinkling fountain. A brown lectern is standing there. The skies are dreary and a chilly breeze blows. Bush and Dick Cheney stroll out of the mansion together. Bush wears a light blue shirt, a vivid blue tie with a small pattern, and a gray suit. Cheney wears a darker blue shirt and a blue patterned tie and a gray suit. Bush reads a statement from a sheet of white paper. He looks tired but occasionally a bemused expression passes across his face. He does not appear to be worried or depressed. "Good morning," he says to the reporters. "Hope everybody got a proper amount of sleep last night." Then he reads his statement: "This morning brings news from Florida that the final vote count there shows that Secretary Cheney and I have carried the state of Florida, and if that result is confirmed in an automatic recount, as we expect it will be, that we have won the election. . . . Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the nation, to call upon the best, to bring people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history." When he is done, he folds the paper into quarters and puts it into the right pocket of his suit. A reporter asks Bush: "Governor, can you describe the events of last night and the phone call from the vice president?" Bush replies: "I got two phone calls and it waswe had a good discussion. Last night was obviously a historic moment. And it's going to be resolved in a quick way. I'm confident that the secretary and I will become the president-elect and the vice president-elect in short order."
From the earliest days, the Bush campaign stressed Bush's inevitability, first as the Republican nominee and then as the winner of the general election. It's why Rove made such a wild prediction as to how much Bush would win by. Now, Bush was continuing the inevitability campaign: There really was no problem. Forget the recounts. It will all work out. He is the next president. And in "short order."
He and Cheney go in to lunch. Bush sits at the end of table nearest the windows with Cheney across from him. Laura Bush sits at her husband's left, and Lynne Cheney is across from her. They eat cold squash soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and fruit. There are crystal glasses filled with water on the table. Bush greets the reporters by name and says, "I'm upbeat." One asks how it feels not knowing what his title will be in a couple of days. "Well, we feel very good about what our title's going to be," Bush says. "I'm looking forward to this being speedily resolved and that the vote that we believe we've got in Florida is confirmed. And when that happens I'll be the president-elect and my friend will be the vice president-elect, and we'll begin the transition. My soup is getting cold. But since it was cold to begin . . . . Thank you all. Everybody go back and get some rest. We will try not to make too much news for you between now and supper."
Missed opportunities? What could each candidate have done to boost his totals, to win more states? No one will ever know, but two theories will have people talking for years: First, did Gore use Clinton wisely? Instead of keeping him at arm's length, should Gore have embraced him, campaigned with him, or at least unleashed him to win his home state of Arkansas? The Gore campaign says no, citing poll numbers and focus groups showing that voters wanted to hear from Gore, not Clinton. And if Clinton was such a hot commodity, the Gore campaign asks, how come Democrats in contested congressional races didn't want anything to do with him? Second, should Bush have picked Tom Ridge, governor of Pennsylvania, as his running mate instead of Dick Cheney? This not only would have ensured Bush that state (which he lost) but, the theory goes, neighboring states as well, plus freeing up Bush to campaign elsewhere. No, the Bush campaign responds, Ridge's pro-abortion-rights stance would have raised the abortion issue and divided Republicans.
While most Americans are watching the eventual outcome with more than a little curiosity, it is important to remember that some Americans are watching events with outrage. Some minority voters clearly feel their votes and voices have been ignored once again: According to a national exit poll by the Los Angeles Times, blacks voted for Gore over Bush by 90 percent to 9, Latinos 61 to 38, and Asians 62 to 37. "Many Gore voters already feel disenfranchised," historian Troy says. "You had Jesse Jackson immediately going down to Florida to say just that. That's why a Bush victory might be more divisive than a Gore victory." On the day after Election Day, Jackson stands in the lobby of a Nashville hotel. He is waiting for a car to take him to the airport so he can fly to Florida. He looks haggard, his face puffy. He speaks in a low voice. "I've never traveled this many miles before, frankly," he says. "It's the most intense I have ever campaigned. I made maybe 250 stops between July and now. Some of the areas we focused on came through for us. There is no question that the black turnout was significant, in some places setting record highs. On Election Day I went to churches to take 'souls to the polls,' where we had meetings and then marched to the polls to vote. And everywhere I went I told people: 'The stakes are high, the lines are clear, your votes are essential.' "
Today, those votes are still being recounted. But no matter who emerges the winner, in an election where turnout was less than 51 percent, another quotation by Adlai Stevenson is apt: "Your public servants serve you right, indeed, often they serve you better than your apathy and indifference deserve."
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