Comment: Sequels Always Bomb

Of all the revelations in The New York Times
investigation of partisan favoritism in the counting of Florida's overseas
ballots, none was more galling than the new information on the role played by
Gore and Lieberman. At a time when campaign strategists were pressing Florida
election officials to disallow military ballots that lacked witness signatures or
pre-election day postmarks, Lieberman appeared on Meet the Press and urged
that military ballots be given "the benefit of the doubt." Only in the Times
account, eight months later, did senior campaign officials pour out their
rage, on the record, at Lieberman--and not for a single blunder but for a whole
mentality.

Gore, if anything, was worse. The Times quoted Joe Sandler, then the
general counsel to the Democratic National Committee, recalling Gore's exact
words: "If I won this thing by a handful of military ballots, I would be hounded
by Republicans and the press every day of my presidency and it wouldn't be worth
having."

It wouldn't be worth having!

That qualm certainly didn't occur to George W. Bush or Karl Rove or James
Baker or Katherine Harris. In the event, Bush didn't win by a handful of military
ballots. He won by a handful of stolen ballots. But that didn't prevent him from
appearing presidential, rolling over the Democrats despite his lack of a mandate,
and winning early enactment of his program's centerpiece: the tax cut. When he
did finally stall, it was less press scrutiny or Democratic resolve that caused
his crusade to sputter than it was his own stupidity and division in his ranks.

The Times investigation underscores how completely the Bush campaign
outplayed Gore. But let's be clear. What allowed the Republicans not only to
filch the White House but to assume office with the glow of legitimacy was not
just shrewder tactics. Bush and Cheney kept their nerve; Gore and Lieberman
abandoned theirs. For some characterological reason, Gore lacked the stomach or
the heart or the guts--pick your favorite body part--to call a steal a steal.
"All of a sudden, he was Jimmy Stewart," a senior legal strategist said of Gore
to the Times. Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have done a lot better: He might
not have wrested back the presidency, but he would have been all heart and Bush
would have taken over in a Pyrrhic win, as a usurper.

The presidency that Gore decided would not be worth having was not his to give
up. It belonged to the millions of Americans who worked to keep George W. Bush
and his gang out of the White House--the citizens who are now suffering the
effects of Bush's rule. In the days after the election, Gore may have been
detached, but there was plenty of passion on the ground. In Florida,
African-American and labor activists wanted massive demonstrations. It was the
campaign high command, on orders from Gore himself, who sent word to cool things
down. They didn't want the face of the Democratic Party on national TV to be
angry black voters and trade unionists. But the Republicans knew exactly what to
do. Though the Democrats had real ground troops in a state of righteous
indignation and the Republicans did not, Republican strategists knew enough to
simulate a demonstration. Majority Whip Tom DeLay sent congressional staffers
in suits, by the planeload, to march menacingly outside the Dade County election
offices until the vote recount was called off.

In yet another default of leadership, Gore has remained hors de
combat in the six months since Bush's inauguration. People close to the former
vice president have several explanations. He was depressed and gaining weight. He
didn't want to seem a sore loser. He wanted time with his family. All of that may
be true. Yet there is another explanation: Gore has been keeping his powder dry.

One of the oddities about Bush's early success was the vacuum of
national Democratic leadership. Understandably, Daschle and Gephardt have been
consumed by the task of holding together their fractious caucuses. Clinton,
having disgraced himself yet again with the midnight pardons, has taken himself
out of the limelight, except for discreet $250,000 speaking engagements. But
Gore? The man got half a million votes more than Bush did. He had every right,
and no small obligation, to stand up and say that the people had not voted for
this program--in short, to lead. Instead, he has evidently been planning a
cautious comeback. He will shortly be speaking at several--what else?--party
fundraising events. He is very close to the party's ace moneyman, DNC Chair Terry
McAuliffe. Beginning in September, we will again hear the familiar, carefully
poll-tested drone of Gore trying to seem presidential.

And lately, Gore loyalists have been talking about a rematch. As in,
the American people love a rematch; the American people deserve a rematch. So in
November 2004, look forward to Bush v. Gore: The Sequel. Well, let's hope
not.

Al Gore got the nomination mainly because the labor movement and the
Democratic Leadership Council agreed, for once, that the candidate should be
chosen early and that it should be Gore. The DLC's money and labor's troops got
Gore more votes than Bush could get. But both groups are pretty unhappy with Gore
now. He blew a terrific shot. And if the Democrats can't find somebody more
effective, then maybe they deserve him.

Mercifully, there wasn't an Ishtar II. And Gore-Lieberman I was quite
sufficient. Sequels always bomb, don't they?


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