From the moment Al Gore retracted his concession to George W. Bush on the morning of Nov. 8, the outcome of this year’s presidential election has hinged on which candidate owns the presumption of victory. Americans agree on only one thing: The candidate who lost should admit it and get out of the way. But which one lost? Gore, who initially appeared to be the loser, has since clawed his way out of that hole. Last night’s decision by the Florida Supreme Court reduced Bush almost to parity, and the angry response from his point man, Jim Baker, fumbled the advantage to the Democrats. Gore may or may not steal the election. But he’s winning the presumption game fair and square.
Gore’s first week of postelection warfare was a triumph of chutzpah. Despite the television networks’ premature verdict, Gore’s concession phone call, Bush’s lead in Florida, and the governor’s showy steps toward assembling a Cabinet, Gore refused to surrender. By touting his lead in the popular vote, framing the Florida tally as an unfinished process, equating vote recounts with democracy, and projecting the will to fight and win, Gore withstood, countered, and defused pressure to give up. As Gore fought on, oozed confidence, and scored enough wins in Florida courts and canvassing boards to keep his prospects alive, Bush retreated physically and psychologically. Gore looked less and less like a sore loser because it was less and less clear, from the demeanor of the two candidates and the status of the ground war in Florida, that he had lost.
Looking like a loser is only half the problem. The other half is looking sore. The candidate who looks sore in a disputed election is the one who does the disputing. At first, that candidate was Gore: He was disputing the networks, the returns, and the fairness of the counting process. One by one, Gore defused those disputes by defusing the facts and perceptions arrayed against him. First, he persuaded the media to withhold judgment. With that reprieve in hand, he relied on Florida’s automatic recount to deplete Bush’s margin. Then Gore’s attorneys and surrogates raised enough legal challenges to overwhelm Bush’s remaining advantage with scenarios that would reverse the lead. And as Democratic lawyers began milking the recount process to Gore’s advantage, Gore’s spokesmen stopped complaining about Florida’s election system and started praising it. He no longer seemed to be losing, and he no longer seemed sore.
By Tuesday night, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state had to accept manual recounts Gore had sought, the presumption game had turned. Bush didn’t just lose the court case. He lost the post-ruling spin match as well. In a brief televised speech, Gore played his best cards with the usual feigned earnestness. He leveled the presumption game by declaring, “It’s now appropriate for both of us to focus on the transition to ensure that the new administration, whoever leads it, will be fully in place.” He spoke from a formal setting in the vice-presidential residence, implicitly reminding everyone that he, not Bush, possesses and looks natural in that territory. He repeated that he had won the popular vote and said twice that “the will of the people” should prevail. By proposing to meet with Bush, Gore cast himself as the true leader. And by refusing to “accept the support of any elector” pledged to Bush, Gore planted the idea that he, not Bush, would be the object of such tribute.
Gore’s message about the court’s decision, the counting process, and the standoff between him and Bush was relentlessly positive and nonpartisan. “Our democracy is the winner tonight,” he began. While proposing to meet with Bush to demonstrate the country’s “unity,” Gore thanked the “citizen volunteers—no matter their political party” who “are doing their jobs diligently and seriously” in the recounts. Having brushed away any impression that he might be sore at Bush, Republicans, or the legal and political process, Gore erased the whole partisan framework in which he might be regarded, for the moment, as a loser. “We all have a stake in the strength of our union,” he concluded. “And in that endeavor there can be no losers.”
But there was a loser last night: the candidate who acted like one. While Gore addressed the cameras, Bush remained offstage, leaving Baker to defend him. Baker could have minimized the court’s ruling, noting that it was confined to the technical question of whether recounts had to be finished by Nov. 14 or Nov. 26. Instead, he escalated Bush’s attack on the counting and adjudicating process. Baker accused the court of “inventing” laws and “changing the rules” in the middle of the game. He criticized “Democratic county electoral boards” and called each defeat for Bush in the recount process “unfair.” He accused the court of “rewriting” the work of Florida’s legislature and “usurping” the functions of Florida’s executive branch. Then Baker went nuclear. “One should not now be surprised if the Florida legislature” overrides the court, he suggested. “We intend to examine and consider whatever remedies we may have to correct this unjust result.”
Baker’s remarks continue a pattern. As political and legal decisions in Florida have turned against them, Bush’s surrogates have mounted a negative campaign. The campaign is targeted not at a person but at the manual recount process, which they ceaselessly deride as subjective, selective, erroneous, skewed, partisan, and cynical. A negative campaign succeeds by isolating its target, pitting him against you and me and all of us who share decent values. When such a campaign, driven by setbacks or hubris, broadens its array of targets to include widely respected people and institutions, it soon finds that it has bitten off more than it can chew. That’s what happened to Joe McCarthy. If Bush and Baker aren’t careful, it will happen to them, too.
First, Gore asked for hand recounts, and the Bush camp said the recounts were flawed. Then county officials agreed to do the recounts, and the Bush camp dismissed them as partisan Democrats. Then the recounts began, and the Bush camp, which had previously argued that courts should stay out of the dispute, went to court to stop them. Now Florida’s highest court has endorsed the recounts, and the Bush camp is accusing that court of a sneaky, unprincipled power play that deserves to be answered in kind. The list of people, institutions, and procedures Bush deems unfair—and the means by which he thinks it’s legitimate to fight them—keeps growing. If, by Monday morning, Bush is losing Florida’s certified election returns and chooses to contest those returns in the courts, the state legislature, or Congress, it won’t help that he also looks sore.