Futile anatomy of a lost election

January 26, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At a forum here the other day on why Al Gore lost the White House, leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council said essentially that he didn't listen to them. They told him that his populist pitch was all wrong; he should have gone after "wired" (to the Internet) suburbanites who held the key to the election.

DLC leader Al From argued that the key to a "progressive majority" was the New Democrat formula of building a coalition of "the working class" and "the rising learning class" of the New Economy.

But Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director and a defender of the Gore strategy, observed that the election actually produced a "progressive" victory, when the popular vote for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader was added to Mr. Gore's half-a-million margin over George W. Bush.

A little math

Mr. From claimed, however, that "the assertion that Nader's marginal vote hurt Gore is not borne out by polling data. When exit pollers asked voters how they would have voted in a two-way race," he wrote, "Bush actually won by a point." William Galston, a former Bill Clinton and Gore political adviser, cited another exit poll indicating that 25 percent of Nader voters would have voted for Mr. Bush had Mr. Nader not run, to 38 percent for Mr. Gore, and the rest would not have voted at all.

Mr. Rosenthal offered a little quick arithmetic. Mr. Nader won about 90,000 votes in Florida, he noted, and Mr. Gore finally lost the state's 25 electoral votes by only 537 ballots when the counting was stopped there. Using Mr. Galston's exit numbers, Mr. Rosenthal figured Mr. Gore would have picked up 11,700 of the 90,000 votes, more than enough of the Nader share to have won Florida, and the White House.

Sitting on one side of the room during the exchange was Mr. Nader, who had his own take on what had brought Mr. Gore down. For openers, he said, "he didn't lose," referring to the Democratic nominee's popular-vote victory and the intervention of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that anointed Mr. Bush. "The real question," Mr. Nader said, "was why wasn't he more victorious?"

From his point of view, Mr. Nader said, it wasn't too much populism, but rather not enough. Mr. Gore should have hammered at corporate power and the failure of the society to provide a living wage for all Americans -- "quality of life and quality of justice" issues that he had addressed. He didn't beat Mr. Gore, he said, "Gore beat Gore."

Somewhat defensively, Mr. Nader noted he had campaigned against both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. "If I had wanted to defeat Gore I would have campaigned more in swing states like Wisconsin," where Mr. Gore barely squeaked through, he said, rather than spending as much time as he had in California, where Mr. Gore had a lock on its electoral vote.

Clinton fatigue

Mr. From and other supporters of the DLC analysis didn't let the question of the Nader factor intrude on their argument that Mr. Gore would have won if only he had laid off his "the-people-against-the-powerful" pitch in favor of building a coalition of the working class and white suburbanite swing voters.

Instead, his DLC critics said, he gave the Republicans what they needed to paint him as just another big-government, big-spending Democrat. He erred further, they said, in selling himself as a partisan fighter while Mr. Bush deftly tapped into the public mood for a change of tone in Washington.

Finally, they said, Mr. Gore had badly misread the perils of "Clinton fatigue." Pollster Mark Penn said that late-deciding voters made the difference, and most of them "approved of President Clinton and the job he was doing. It was a fundamental mistake for Gore to distance himself from Clinton and keep the president off the hustings. Fears of a backlash against Clinton were unfounded."

Why Mr. Gore lost the White House will no doubt be a continuing Democratic debate. But Mr. Nader had it right. Mr. Gore didn't lose as much as he had it taken away from him --- by the anachronism that is the Electoral College and by William Rehnquist and his four sidekicks.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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