The Art of Finger-Pointing

Why wait until next week? Let’s start now. 

My favorite unwritten rule of political commentary is the one that says it must pivot on Election Day. As the election approaches, there is more and more emphasis on baroque details of campaign strategy. But as soon as the results are known, they are stamped with historical inevitability and analyzed in the broadest possible terms. Today, at the frenzied peak of the baroque phase, we debate the wisdom of a candidate’s choice of ties—fueled by anonymous quotes from advisers who urged paisley and are damned if they’re going down with the ship of a captain who listened to fools recommending stripes. A week from now, we’ll be proclaiming the result as the foreordained culmination of trends since the Pleistocene era.

Like every other pundit, I am already trying to figure out how the election result, whatever it happens to be, can plausibly be attributed to the Internet. And heck, the theory doesn’t even have to be all that plausible.

Meanwhile, among partisans of the losing candidate, there is the consolation of finger-pointing. If George W. Bush recaptures the White House for the Republicans—to choose a possible outcome at random—there’s no doubt who will be getting the most fingers: the Democratic candidate himself, Al Gore. It’s going to be vicious: He was handed the greatest economy in the history of the universe and a nation towering over the rest of the world, and he couldn’t turn them into victory over an inexperienced dunce whose only asset was the same name as a man who had blown it similarly for the other party. Ironists will spare a few fingers for Bill Clinton: Houdini to the end, he’ll leave office more popular than ever, but Al Gore will have died for his sins.

If Gore should turn it around in this last week, by contrast, George W. Bush will not get much personal blame. It’s not his fault, poor dear. He always did as he was told.

So back to Gore. A week from now, either his loss will be historically inevitable or he will have won. That makes the next few days the best moment for cheap hindsight on his campaign. Besides choosing the wrong man as his presidential running mate back in 1992, and besides various supposed personality defects beyond his control, what did Gore do wrong? Here are a couple of available recriminations:

First, what was this stagy populist posturing all about? The vilification of big corporations and other, vaguer evil forces? The heavy-handed calls for “us” versus “them” resentment?

It is striking that in this election both candidates pretended to be further left than they really are. In George W. Bush’s case, it’s sort of a double-bluff: a man with no real interest in policy or ideology pretending to be a committed conservative who then pretends to be a sort of neoliberal moderate government reformer. Trouble is, the first bluff is a life strategy while the second bluff is a political convenience. Only the second bluff is likely to be discarded after the election.

In Gore’s case, there is real, traditional left-wing populism in his bloodlines (his father). But it was never a note he struck much himself until his convention acceptance speech two months ago. Throughout his career, he was almost exactly the neoliberal moderate his opponent is now pretending to be. Gore has sold this stock just as Bush was buying. One of these two has made a terrible mistake.

It’s dispiriting that both candidates chose to fake who they are, though from a liberal perspective, it’s encouraging that both candidates chose to fake left (and did so before Ralph Nader became a serious threat). But in Gore’s case, it’s also puzzling. Bush, at least, was following the conventional strategy of appealing to his party’s base during the primaries and then reaching for the center during the general election. What did Gore think he was doing by making a sharp left turn the very night of his nomination?

It’s especially puzzling in a campaign where your strongest asset is record-breaking prosperity. Gore’s message was: You’ve never had it so good, and I’m mad as hell about it. Keep the team that brought you this situation, and I’ll fight to take back power from the evil forces that have imposed it on you. In 1988, a similarly situated Vice President Bush brilliantly combined appeals to middle-class complacency and populist resentment. But his trick was to attack a supposed cultural elite while claiming credit for economic success. Gore has been trying to brag about the economy and attack economic royalism at the same time. Not completely impossible, I suppose. But why juggle three tennis balls and keep a saucer spinning on a stick at the same time if you don’t have to?

Another Gore mistake was his almost frightening willingness to follow the advice of media commentators. Not that media commentators are ever wrong, goodness knows. It’s just that they (we) tend to be mercurial, and Gore makes it look like a game of Simon Says. After the first debate, everyone said he was too hyperactive and know-it-all. OK, so in the second debate he was almost catatonic. No, no, said the media, you’re letting Bush get away with it. So in the third debate he was hyperactive again.

The media say: You must distance yourself from President Clinton. You must show that you’re your own man. So Gore puts Clinton in a lockbox and goes around saying, “I’m my own man.” Exactly as instructed. The media then scold: Hey, you’re dissing the president! (We didn’t say Simon Says!)

The good thing about premature hindsight is that there’s time to benefit from it. It’s not too late for Gore to win this one, if he absorbs all the lessons outlined in this column. Especially about the importance of not following advice from the media. Simon says.