Ballot Box

Why Gore (Probably) Lost

Like many of my colleagues, I spent the early part of Election Day writing an article based on the outcome I thought most likely. And like many of them, I was a bit flummoxed about what to do with my piece, “Why Gore Lost,” as the result I anticipated dematerialized, rematerialized, and then tentatively dematerialized again. So before the tables turn once more, I’m going to publish the damn thing. There’s a certain absurdity built into the notion that one can “explain” the result of an election this close anyhow. With so minuscule a margin, everything that could have moved a couple of thousand votes one way or the other decides it. But I think my argument about why Gore didn’t win big, as he should have, will remain valid, even if it turns out that he won small. 

As recriminations season begins, the starting point for everyone is that Gore should not have lost this race. Every predictive model shows an incumbent vice president running against the backdrop of a growing economy with no war as a near shoo-in. And the competition Gore faced was hardly of an impressive caliber. So why did he lose? I’ll give you my top three before explaining why there’s really just one reason.

1. There’s something about Gore’s public personality that’s just plain hard to take. This truth came home to me again over the weekend as I sat in my apartment watching the final rallies that were broadcast live on the cable news channels and C-SPAN. At times, both candidates would touch down simultaneously, and you’d have a choice of which of the two to watch–Bush on Fox or Gore on MSNBC, for instance. I conscientiously flipped back and forth, but I had to admit that at some visceral level, I preferred listening to Bush. Some of this is the stock-car phenomenon. You want to see him run off the verbal track and crash in a ball of fire. But it is also undeniable that Bush is comfortable with his own (extensive) shortcomings while Gore is self-conscious and awkward about his. It’s unpleasant to watch a man so ill at ease with himself and what he’s doing. Whether consciously or not, I think many voters shied away from the prospect of four skin-crawling years.

2. Instead of finding a way to embrace the accomplishments record of the Clinton administration, Gore ran away from Clinton as fast as his legs could carry him. In September and October, this became almost comical. Gore would use tortured locutions to avoid having to utter the president’s name. Perhaps Gore did need to distance himself from Clinton’s personal failings, but in doing so, he managed to distance himself from Clinton’s public successes at the same time. Gore didn’t claim and thus did not receive much credit for prosperity, the budget surplus, welfare reform, crime reduction, and other social and economic gains in which he played a significant part.

3. In the wake of a successful centrist presidency and the best economy in memory, Gore adopted an angry populism as the tone of his campaign. Michael Kinsley aptly characterized this stance as “You’ve never had it so good, and I’m mad as hell about it.” Egged on by populist advisers like Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg, Gore failed to assimilate the political implications of the social changes that have swept the country in the past decade. The new reality is not just that middle-class Americans think of themselves more as taxpayers than as the recipients of government programs. It’s that middle-class Americans actually own big chunks of the oil, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies that Gore was vilifying. Instead of running the first campaign of the new economy, he ran the last campaign of the New Deal.

These are familiar complaints and may shortly harden into received wisdom. My only claim is that I’ve argued they were problems for Gore fairly consistently, whereas others contended that his irate populism and frantic running away from Bill Clinton might work (such as at the Democratic convention). But the additional point that I think is important is that these three failures are deeply interwoven. Indeed, it seems to me that Gore’s mistakes in the campaign flowed from his character with an almost tragic inevitability.

Gore’s failures are all rooted in his relationship with his late father, Albert Gore Sr. According to various accounts I’ve read, Gore had a close, loving relationship with both of his parents growing up. But it’s also evident that the burden of parental expectations has been a central emotional fact of his life. Bill Turque’s underappreciated biography, Inventing Al Gore, paints this picture extremely well. Gore’s parents raised him to be a politician. After his own career ended in 1970, Albert Sr.’s one wish was to see his son elected president. Little Al resisted becoming the vessel for his father’s frustrated ambitions, eventually succumbed, but never entirely surrendered. He continued to try to prove to himself and to the world that he was his own man. In his first campaign for Congress, Albert Jr. asked his father to not campaign for him. This came as a blow to Albert Sr., who remained a looming, often unhelpful presence in all of his son’s subsequent campaigns.

I think this personal history explains much of Gore’s awkwardness–a point he seemed to endorse himself, somewhat elliptically, in his book Earth in the Balance. Politics has always been the career that was chosen for him, one he was never especially talented at, and one that he didn’t truly like. Many people who have written about Gore have described his attitude toward politics–as opposed to his attitude toward governing–as one of contempt. Gore thinks vote-grubbing is beneath him and has little respect for those who pursue politics as an end in itself. Because serving in office requires getting elected, Gore does what you’re supposed to do to succeed at it. He hires operatives of various kinds, panders to the special interests, demagogues on Social Security–but with evident disdain for the process he’s engaging in. At some buried level, he despises the family business, a sentiment that manifests itself in his exaggerated, almost mannered speaking style and his failure to create a human connection with his listeners. (Gore’s contempt for politics also manifests itself in the poor use he makes of advisers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While Gore has achieved a degree of self-understanding, it remains incomplete. He recognizes the damage done by the imposition of parental expectations but isn’t free of the pressure from them. At some level, I think he’s very angry about the way he was raised. This Oedipal dynamic lies at the heart of the campaign he has run. With big Albert dead, Gore has made Bill Clinton into a father figure, one who while ostensibly wishing him well is also causing him damage. I think this dynamic was present through the eight years of the administration, but it solidified into a kind of hatred after the Lewinsky scandal. Once Gore began running for president, the repudiation of Clinton came to assume a central role in his campaign.

Where did the notion that Gore was struggling to emerge as his own man come from? It came from the Democratic convention speech that Gore made a point of letting everyone know he was writing himself. The subsequent drama of whether Clinton would be allowed to campaign with him, or on his behalf, was also largely of Gore’s own devising. Once a consensus emerged that Clinton’s involvement would help, Gore couldn’t let Clinton pitch in without getting the press excited about a big flip-flop. (To understand how this dynamic might have been different, compare the way that George W. Bush kept his father out of the picture without making a big deal out of it.) Clinton, it should be said, inhabited the role of frustrated parent completely. Throughout the campaign, he couldn’t refrain from telling people that Al was doing it all wrong, just as Gore’s father had in 1988. He asked intermediaries to ask Gore to let him help. One thing Clinton cannot bear is rejection, and when he felt it from his handpicked protégé, he subconsciously lashed out. On a Los Angeles radio show, he said that since he couldn’t run for a third term, Gore was “the next best thing.” You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that Clinton meant what he said, even though he didn’t mean to say it.

Gore’s need to separate himself from Clinton led to the best move of his campaign, the choice of a running mate whose chief claim to fame was a moralistic denunciation of the president during the impeachment debate. But the rest of the time, the psychological distance Gore demanded from Clinton was politically damaging. Whether or not Clinton himself would have been a major asset on the stump (I think he would have been), the Clinton-Gore record was the essential rationale for electing Al Gore as president. And even more than he needed Clinton’s record, Gore needed Clinton’s centrist politics, which brought the Democrats back to the White House after a long period in the wilderness.

Paradoxically, Gore’s distanced himself from Clinton in part by tapping into Albert Sr.’s style of old-fashioned populism. Eschewing the kind of New Democratic moderation that elected Clinton twice, Gore brought on the class-warrior Bob Shrum and proceeded to vilify “powerful forces.” He even tossed aside Clinton’s New Democratic pollster Mark Penn in favor of Stanley Greenberg, the old Democrat Clinton fired after the 1994 debacle. I’ve often wondered how Gore managed to live through an eight-year tutorial with the most talented politician of the past 40 years and learn absolutely nothing. One former Gore aide I know compares the problem to playing basketball with Michael Jordan. When your talents fall so far short, watching the master of the game can be frustrating rather than edifying. I’d throw in the Oedipal explanation as well. Rather than learn from Clinton’s mistakes, Gore preferred to make his own mistakes, and learn from them on his own.

Al Gore doesn’t deserve all the vilification that may be about to be heaped on him. He has done a fine job as vice president and really does deserve credit for many of the administration’s accomplishments. Although the ineptitude of his campaign was frustrating to his supporters, he tried to compensate for it by working his heart out. Had Bush lost by so narrow a margin, his defeat would have been attributable to laziness, a failing Bush has far more control over than Gore has over his. And if Gore is at fault, so are many of his aides, who we can expect will soon be pointing the finger elsewhere. And so, too, is the public, which failed to see through what are, in the scheme of things, superficial faults to elect the more capable, intelligent, and experienced man.

Illustrationby Robert Neubecker. 

Photograph of Al Gore on the MSN Sidebar by Jim Bourg/Reuters.