The Magazine

IT'S THE DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN, STUPID

How Vice President Gore Will Run Against Governor Bush

Jun 14, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 37 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Fast forward to January 20, 2001. The steps of the U.S. Capitol. The president-elect raises his hand to take the oath of office. Forming the backdrop to the scene: a who's who of the best and brightest of the Republican party, now preparing to sit as the most illustrious cabinet in a generation; the vice president-elect, whose choice unified and galvanized the party; and, of course, the 41st president of the United States, looking on with paternal pride as the fateful words mark the start of the administration of the 43rd: "I, George W. Bush, do solemnly swear . . ."


Pause button, please. Agreeable as it no doubt is for Republicans to fantasize about how sweet will be their victory in 2000, history is bereft of a fast-forward button. Politics unfolds day by day, often slowly and painfully, always full of surprises. George W. has not even won the GOP nomination yet, much less the general election. Those currently focused on the fruits of his triumph are way ahead of themselves.


The source of the GOP's current rich fantasy life is one overwhelming and remarkably persistent fact: George W. Bush leads Vice President Al Gore by double digits in every poll taken so far. The closest one, by John Zogby, has Bush 11 points ahead. The ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Bush's lead at 13. CNN/Gallup/USA Today says 16. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics finds Bush favored over Gore by a crushing 58-32.


Republicans want a winner. They also think they need a winner, that to lose the White House yet again would be an unmitigated disaster for the country and the party. And in George W. Bush, the wildly popular two-term governor of Texas, scion of GOP aristocracy, self-styled compassionate conservative, habla Espanol, they smell a winner. So they have been flocking by the score to Austin, in an unprecedented effort to establish Bush as a consensus candidate more than a year before the nominating convention.


They may be right about Bush. They are not wrong about the polls. Nor is there any polling to support the proposition that there is a better, more "electable" GOP candidate out there, let alone a poll that reveals the identity of such a one. But it's also true that there's nothing inevitable or automatic about a George W. victory. For purposes of argument, let's grant him the nomination (itself a dubious exercise in fast-forwarding, especially considering that Bush has no experience running nationally). It's worth pausing to speculate about what a general-election matchup between Bush and Gore might look like.


Let us begin with the George W.-favoring proposition that vice presidents face unique difficulties in ascending to the Oval Office by virtue of the baggage they acquire in the No. 2 role. Recall one element of the hoopla of George Bush pere's elevation: the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin van Buren in 1836! Does not the 150-year interval bode ill for Gore's prospects?


No, in fact, it does not. Only four sitting vice presidents have ever run for president in a general election. Martin and George won. Hubert Humphrey lost in 1968 -- by 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast. This was at a time of maximal turmoil over Vietnam, and Humphrey was heir to a failed president who had decided not to attempt a reelection bid. It seems a bit of a stretch to infer a general curse from that loss and from Richard Nixon's even narrower loss to JFK in 1960 (120,000 votes out of 68 million cast).


Now, one might say, many were the veeps who eyed the office but didn't make it to November for one reason or another. This is true. Our scenario simply assumes Gore gets the nomination. But does anyone really think that this is an unlikely outcome -- that the Bill Bradley challenge will bump Gore out of the way? No, the most likely course is that Al Gore, having served eight years as vice president, will be the nominee of a united Democratic party, his people already in place in key positions in the administration of a president who long ago indicated his commitment to Gore as successor. That doesn't make Gore weak; it makes him formidable.


In addition, for all the scandals swirling around the Clinton White House, Gore has at his disposal a positive message of some power. While "the Clinton-Gore years" sounds to Republicans like a phrase that should discredit Gore, it sounds rather different to Gore and his Democrats. Republicans will insist until the end of time that neither Clinton nor Gore deserves much credit, but we are looking back on eight fat years of prosperity and peace, and everybody knows it. There's a record for Gore to run on.