The Repudiation Syndrome

Since Lyndon Johnson, every Democrat who has run for president has suffered repudiation within his own party after either serving in office or losing the election. Democrats repudiated Johnson because of the Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter because of the economy and Bill Clinton because of his personal conduct, and they repudiated George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis for their seeming personal inadequacy in the crucible of political battle.

Seen in this context, the widespread rejection of Al Gore within the Democratic Party after the 2000 election is less an idiosyncratic event than a new instance of a persistent syndrome. Like the other defeated candidates, Gore has suffered a kind of ritual denigration and shunning, as everything about him has come to be seen through the lens of political disappointment.

Democrats continue to harbor the illusion that they are the majority party in America. When their presidential candidates lose, the reflexive response among many in the party is to attribute failure primarily to the personal limitations of the leaders (rather than, say, the candidates' ideas or strategy or the party's divisions and weaknesses). And because human beings are never without their faults, the dissection of a failed leader's character inevitably uncovers the flaws that doomed the man from the start -- whereupon the search begins for fresh faces whose chief recommendation is that they have yet to be subjected to the same process.

Having won a half-million more votes than George W. Bush, Gore might have gotten a pass from the ritual of recrimination. After all, he is the only person in more than a century to receive more votes for the presidency than his opponent and yet not become president. By the standards of normal elections -- indeed, every election for every other national and state office in the United States -- he would have won. He also faced a distinctive problem that no previous Democratic candidate in the past half-century had faced: a third-party candidate who disproportionately drained votes from the Democratic ticket.

But after the 2000 election, analysts did not point to the flaws in Bush's character that explained why he had received fewer votes than Gore. In America, a man who loses an election loses a second time when the analysts interpret everything about him in the context of his being a "loser." Had Americans abolished the Electoral College years ago, the election postmortems would have found shrewdness and strength in Gore where they instead found dullness and deficiency -- but no matter. Everyone who disliked Gore, often for petty reasons, could now elevate their dislike into an explanation for why he was so unpopular that he had not won the election by a landslide.

My own view is that the personalities of Gore and Bush were probably irrelevant to the outcome. In the election for Congress that year, the national vote for Democrats and Republicans was nearly equal, with the Senate ending up at first with an exact 50-50 split. The national vote for the House had also been divided almost evenly between the two parties two years earlier. Gore and Bush were close because the electorate was split down the middle ideologically; each candidate had personal drawbacks, but these seem to have cancelled each other out. That Gore beat Bush by 500,000 votes while losing the Electoral College was simply a historical fluke.

What has happened afterward, however, is no fluke. Presidential candidates need to bridge party factions, but the factions are not necessarily grateful. During the 2000 campaign, Gore attempted to satisfy both moderates and liberals in the party -- on the one hand naming Joseph Lieberman as his running mate and on the other attacking corporate abuses and opposing Bush's tax cut as a gift to the rich. But afterward, not wishing to let any of the stigma of defeat fall upon themselves, party moderates blamed Gore's "populism" while liberals said he hadn't gone far enough. Gore's recent criticism of Bush on Iraq and his spat with Lieberman over corporate abuses have further alienated his more conservative backers without necessarily winning over liberals. The result is that he may go into the 2004 race -- if he goes into it at all -- as a political orphan, the unforgiven bridge builder abandoned by the two factions that he attempted to unite.

So Democrats may well turn their backs on Gore, as they have turned their backs on other former presidents and presidential candidates for so many years. I am not sure whether Gore would make the strongest candidate in 2004 (though I'd be glad to see him try). But I am certain that the repudiation syndrome is bad for the Democratic Party, which has unnecessarily cast good men into the political shadows. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Jimmy Carter is a reminder of the considerable achievements of one of those men. As Carter has shown, the reputation of national leaders is a valuable resource, not just to the individuals themselves but to the causes they represent. The Democrats would be stronger if they understood that.

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