Richard Reeves

What's Wrong With Al Gore

WASHINGTON -- The latest CBS/New York Times Poll reports that, by a small margin, respondents believe that Vice President Gore was (or is) the rightful winner of Florida's electoral votes -- and therefore he really won the 2000 presidential election.

I think that's right. But then, six months ago, I thought Gore would win by 10 points. The day before the election, way back in November, I still thought he would win by maybe four points. How he managed to lose to Gov. George W. Bush is a question for "Saturday Night Live!"

In this election, though, anyone getting the numbers wrong has a lot of company. If I did not have the foresight to get it right, I did have the foresight to save a Washington Post list of predictions published the Sunday before Decision 2000, which may become Decision 2001.

William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, thought Gore would win, too, by 1 percent of the popular vote and a 317-221 margin in the Electoral College. Peggy Noonan, the old Reagan speechwriter, predicted Bush by nine points in the popular vote and an electoral victory of 411-127. Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa, a maker of forecasting models, had that count at 398-140 for Gore. The guy who did best, sort of, was "Hardball's" Christopher Matthews, who got the numbers right and the names wrong, predicting Bush would win the popular vote by 1 percent and Gore would win the electoral vote by 271-267.

So it turned out that the best answer was: Anybody's guess! The best question was: How could Gore lose? If he has. Professor Lewis-Beck's wide prediction was, in fact, based on tested methodology showing that there is (or has been) a relation between presidential election results and the state of the economy. If those models had held up this time, Gore would be president-elect.

Why isn't he? Why didn't he sweep the country? And then why didn't he prevail (so far) in Florida's photo finish?

Leaving aside his somewhat imperious persona, and the candidacy of Ralph Nader, what follows are a few conclusions after conversations with people relatively high up in the Gore campaign. He did not do as well as he should have in the election because:

-- He came out of the primaries -- and the challenge by Bill Bradley -- looking not only arrogant, but mean, unnecessarily mean.

-- Sen. Joe Lieberman turned out not to be such a good vice presidential choice because the God stuff turned off some voters and took attention away from traditional Democratic issues of economics and fairness.

-- False pride prevented him from figuring out some way to use President Clinton.

That said and done, if Gore does not prevail after all the recounts and legal maneuvering, it is because:

-- He conceded too soon because he did not have people on the ground in Florida and other places who could tell him to be wary of television's sloppy vote-counting and guesses.

-- He did not simply call for a full recount in Florida, playing it too cute by half.

-- He sent the wrong people to Florida to represent him. William Daley, totally unfairly, was vulnerable because his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, was a euphemism for stolen votes; Warren Christopher doesn't work on television; Jesse Jackson came on like rent-a-riot, so the Republicans had cover to start one.

Life is unfair. Lose or win, Al Gore was a victim and played the victim, not a role for men who would be president. He looked for sympathy before opportunity and could not react quickly enough to unforeseen circumstances and events. If he loses, he deserved to. In an always unpredictable world, reaction time and tone are two of the most important qualifications and duties of a president.

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