As Al Gore and his advisers work furiously on the speech he will deliver to the nation at 9 p.m. EST, they face an extraordinary challenge. How can the vice president display the “graciousness” that the united voice of cable commentators demands and also be honest? Short of tossing out a few platitudes and avoiding any meaningful statement, I doubt that he can do both things. The way Bush “won” the election leaves Gore with an unpleasant trade-off between speaking the truth and playing the good sport. More graciousness will mean less honesty. More honesty means less graciousness.
It would be no challenge to write an honest withdrawal speech if you didn’t care about being courteous. Gore would avoid the term “concession” because he does not truly believe that he lost the election. He thinks his winning votes weren’t counted. (A more dispassionate assessment comes from Justice Stevens, who wrote in his dissenting opinion, “we may never know with complete certainty the winner of this year’s presidential election.”) A truthful withdrawal might better be described as a “recognition” speech. Gore would announce that he is giving up and acknowledging Bush’s legal status as president-elect. But he would say he was doing this because he had no practical alternative, not because he thinks Bush really won the election.
Nor would it be any great challenge to write a gracious speech if you didn’t care about being truthful. Gore could simply say what candidates who come in second usually say: I waged a hard fight, but the other guy won according to the rules, so I’ll support him. We have a lot of goals in common, and I hope he can accomplish them. The problem with such comments is that Gore doesn’t think Bush won at all, and he certainly doesn’t think Bush won according to the rules. The will of the people wasn’t heard because Bush did everything he could to make sure that it wouldn’t be. Nor is it likely he wants Bush to succeed. Gore wants Bush to fail, in part because he may want to challenge him to a rematch in 2004.
One possible way out of this dilemma is the philosophical option. Gore stresses his own bad luck rather than Bush’s bad faith. More people intended to vote for me, Gore says, but thanks to happenstance, they didn’t succeed in getting their votes counted. The election was so close that it was essentially a tie, and Bush won the coin toss. The problem with this fudge is that Bush prevented the equivalent of a fair coin toss, which would have been to count all the ballots that could be counted under pre-existing rules and standards. Gore can’t shake his head and say that life is unfair when Bush was doing his utmost to make it unfair.
Another possible escape hatch is to defer to the Majesty of Our Constitutional System. Gore says everyone knew the rules when they decided to play the game. One of those rules is that the winner of the national popular vote doesn’t necessarily get to be president. Another rule is that the Supreme Court has the last word. I might not like the result, Gore says, but the system worked. Such a dodge might have been effective if Gore had unambiguously lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. But since Gore thinks he won Florida, he has to believe that the system failed in a profound sense. And how can he bow respectfully to a Supreme Court decision that left even four of its justices worrying about the institution’s credibility? Justice Breyer describes the majority opinion in Bush v. Gore as a “wound” that could harm both the court and the nation. Gore can say that the court’s decision requires obedience, but he’ll be faking if he says it deserves much more than that.
So what will Gore say? If he envisions a political future for himself and hopes to run in 2004, he’ll probably take the advice of those who want him to err in the direction of graciousness. Gore will point out that he isn’t entirely out of options–that he has a constitutional right to lobby the Electoral College, but he’ll say he doesn’t think that would be right. He’ll congratulate Bush on his victory and describe him, insincerely, as a worthy opponent. He’ll say that the country has work to do and that we must unite to get it done. He’ll tell his supporters to relinquish any grievance against Bush (while counting on them to nurse it unbidden).
My personal opinion is that Gore doesn’t have much of a future in elective politics. Even if he got robbed, Gore failed to win the election the way he should have given the booming economy and the insubstantiality of his opponent. But if Gore does have any political future, it depends on his finally finding a way to express himself more candidly to the American people. He’ll have to connect with the public in the way he failed to do during the campaign. That means speaking the truth, from his heart. And even if it doesn’t do Gore any good politically, I think laying his cards on the table would have cathartic value, for both him and his supporters.
That’s why I hope Gore ends his campaign by telling it like it is. He should note that Bush didn’t win the election in any meaningful sense but explain that under the circumstances, it’s better for everyone if Gore relinquishes his claim. While I might have an ethical case for pressing on, Gore could say, I don’t have much realistic hope of persuading Republican electors to switch sides. Attempting to do so would create incredible bad blood between our two parties and set a terrible precedent for the future. “I don’t accept that the result is fair,” he might say, “but I do accept that it is the result.” In a holiday spirit, Gore could forgive Bush for behaving in an unprincipled way in the postelection battle and acknowledge that he could have behaved more honorably himself.
Such a speech probably wouldn’t be deemed gracious. But it would be something more important: dignified because true.