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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2000 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Roger Simon

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Apportioning votes by a coin flip -- IN AMERICA, anyone can become president. That's one of the risks we take.

When Adlai Stevenson expressed that sentiment decades ago, he was being sardonic. Today, that comment looks like popular wisdom.

Why was this the closest election in American history?

Not because Americans are so deeply divided, but because similar candidates with similar goals market themselves to the American people in similar ways.

Close elections usually signify a great divide over a key issue or crisis. Not this one. "If anything, this is a testament to the social stability of the United States as in enters the 21st century; I don't see a great social divide ripping this country apart," says presidential historian Gil Troy. "It also signifies the growing irrelevance of politics to the lives of many people."

But even if politics is irrelevant, people still expect the political system to work. In other words they expect presidential elections to produce presidents. So far, this one hasn't. The two sides very much anticipated a split decision between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote, though neither anticipated no decision at all.

In the waning days of he campaign, the Gore forces received information that the Bush campaign was expecting an Electoral College loss and was campaigning in such "hopeless" states as New Jersey (where Gore would win by 14 percentage points) and California (where Gore would win by 13 percentage points) in order to gather popular votes for Bush.

That way Bush could claim the will of the people had been expressed in the popular vote and could urge electors to the Electoral College to vote for him regardless of how their states voted.

This would be extremely rare in U.S. history, where only nine times have electors voted for someone other than who won their state.

But only 24 states have laws requiring such loyalty and only four of those states impose any kind of penalty for not doing so.

Now, however, Gore must face the same choice Bush faced. Having apparently won the popular vote, does Gore encourage electors to be "faithless" and gain the presidency that way?

Such a strategy might create a real constitutional crisis, and if Gore loses the battle, it might sour the public on him for good. Others in the Gore campaign argue that if Gore loses Florida, it would be better for him to concede and run again in 2004.

They believe that no candidate who actually won the popular vote and narrowly lost the electoral vote could possibly be denied the nomination of his party. True, it would mean Gore would have to find something to do for four years, but in an age when presidential campaigns are virtually never-ending, he would not be twiddling his thumbs much.

"Everyone is aware that twice in history a candidate has won the popular vote, failed to win in the Electoral College, but then came back four years later to win the presidency overwhelmingly," a Gore aide said. "But we are still seeing how this plays out. We know we won the popular vote, we think we won Florida and the electoral vote, but, somehow people say we still didn't win!"

Americans can be forgiven, however, if they appeared to apportion their votes by a coin flip.

When you can turn on your TV set and see the two candidates being warm, fuzzy and winsome with Oprah or Letterman or Leno, it's hard to see much difference between them or draw any political lessons from their performances.

It's not that George W. Bush and Al Gore are identical or without ideologies or have the same view of government. But as they ran for president they relentlessly downplayed their ideologies in a mad dash to the center of the American political spectrum.

And they did it for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: that's where the payoff is.

As much as they could, Gore and Bush avoided hot-button issues like abortion and gun control for fear of scaring off middle-of-the-road voters. So each campaign played it very carefully, reducing their messages to a few, nonideological words.

Bush wanted to be "a uniter, not a divider."

Gore was "fighting for you."

And if those slogans summoned up no sharp policy differences, that's because it was intended that way.

Gore is a "new" Democrat, which means, among other things, he supports such formerly conservative causes as the death penalty.

Bush is a "compassionate" conservative, which means, among other things, that he has moderate views on issues like immigration, was careful not to be seen with such divisive figures as Pat Robertson and downplayed the role at the Republican Convention of party conservatives who were out front in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

That the two major parties have produced similar candidates is hardly a surprise. To get a major party nomination, Republican or Democrat, the same qualities are necessary: a certain amount of name recognition, which gives you the ability to raise vast sums of money, which allows you to go on TV, increase your name recognition and raise even vaster sums of money. That George Bush, with a much thinner political resume than Al Gore, was able to fight him to what appears to be a draw demonstrates how little Americans care about political service.

Bush understood (as Clinton did) that campaigns are not about service, but seduction.

Al Gore viewed the presidential campaign as a job interview; George Bush viewed it as a date. It is easier to avoid extremes and follow a safe path down the middle of the road in good times, but the good economic times in America actually proved to be a challenge for both candidates.

Critic after critic attacked Gore for not being able to obtain credit for the good economy, without ever explaining how he was supposed to do it.

Vice presidents rarely get credit for anything, which may be why only four sitting vice presidents have been voted into office, only one in modern times.

Voters did not find one man much more compelling than the other. That could be because the two men lacked compelling differences, but it could also be because the media is so relentless in pursuit of any flaws, no matter how old or how silly -- a 24-year-old drunk-driving arrest for Bush vs. the fact that Gore sighed during a debate -- that candidates are never put on a pedestal but always are in danger of being buried under one.

Why should the public become passionate about a candidate when people know that person will soon be shredded?

Roger Ailes, George Bush's media wizard in 1988, once said: "A presidential campaign is about cartoons. The media insists on them. They want every candidate's image summed up in a few words."

In 1988, that meant Bush was "The Wimp" and Dukakis was "The Cold Guy." In 2000, the cartoons were not only clear but could have been drawn by Walt Disney: It was Pinocchio vs. Dumbo.

The debates, which were supposed to allow each candidate to break out of his cartoon image, changed few minds. They did, however, teach Al Gore something. He really did imagine that voters would compare one candidate to the other, examining their wisdom, judgment, abilities and experience, and choose that candidate who was the best and the brightest.

To his horror he discovered that voters had a much different view, a view the Bush campaign identified early on as the "bar of competence" view.

Once a candidate met or exceeded the bar of competence, the Bush staff argued, voters were satisfied that candidate could do the job of president and they began looking at other qualities, like likeability.

So who "won" the debate was not the point. Voters looked at the debates not as intellectual competitions as much as coming out parties (or cattle shows), where they could take a look at the candidates and see how they felt about them.

Few minds were changed. Gore supporters found Bush hopelessly inadequate -- he did not even know how many people he was looking forward to executing in Texas -- and Bush supporters found Gore unable to avoid lies and exaggerations, even when they were gratuitous, as when he claimed to have taken a trip with a federal official that never took place.

Gore trailed in the polls, sometimes in double digits, throughout most of the campaign. Instructively, the exceptions came when Gore managed to break out of the cartoon. By boldly picking Joe Lieberman as his vice president, by humanizing himself with a warm kiss and a passionate speech on the evening of his nomination, he was able to make voters think about him in a new way.

What caused the polls (assuming they were really measuring anything, which is a big assumption) to change? The Pinocchio image reasserted itself when Gore attacked the movie industry for marketing sex and violence to young children and then went to Hollywood to scoop up more money from the movie industry.

What caused Gore to gain ground at the end? The public learned Bush might be a be a Pinocchio, too, by being far less than candid about an old drunk-driving conviction.

For such a hard-fought campaign, however, there was little exuberance and, until election night, little excitement. Gore's desire to win was abundant, but he usually looked like he was doing homework. And Bush constantly looked as if running for president was something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Watching the two campaign was like watching O.J. Simpson's low-speed car chase: It was an interesting diversion, but it seemed to lack relevancy.

What could each candidate have done to boost its totals, to win more states? No one will ever know, but two theories will have people talking for years:

First, did Gore use Clinton wisely? Instead of keeping him at arm's length, should Gore have embraced him, campaigned with him or at least unleashed him to win his home state of Arkansas?

The Gore campaign says no, citing poll numbers and focus groups showing that voters wanted to hear from Gore, not Clinton. And if Clinton was such a hot commodity, the Gore campaign says, how come Democrats in contested congressional races didn't want anything to do with him?

Second, should Bush have picked Tom Ridge, governor of Pennsylvania, as his running mate instead of Dick Cheney? This not only would have assured Bush that state (which he lost), but -- the theory goes -- neighboring states as well, plus freeing up Bush to campaign elsewhere.

No, the Bush campaign responds, Ridge's pro-choice stance would have raised the abortion issue and divided Republicans.

While most Americans are watching the eventual outcome with more than a little curiosity, it is important to remember that some Americans are watching events with outrage.

Some minority voters clearly feel their votes and voices have been ignored once again: According to a national exit poll by the Los Angeles Times, blacks voted for Gore over Bush 90 percent to 9, Latinos 61 to 38 and Asians 62 to 37.

"Many Gore voters already feel disenfranchised," historian Troy says. "You had Jesse Jackson immediately going down to Florida to say just that. That's why a Bush victory might be more divisive than a Gore victory."

Today, the votes are still being recounted. But no matter who emerges the winner, in an election where turnout was less than 51 percent of the electorate, another quotation by Adlai Stevenson apt: "Your public servants serve you right. Indeed, often they serve you better than your apathy and indifference deserve."

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