The presidential race is now neck-and-neck. Democrats who thought Al Gore was pulling away once and for all after trailing George W. Bush for virtually the entire pre-convention season are going to have to contain their euphoria.
What happened during and after his convention is that Mr. Gore finally became competitive; he did not put the election away. As for Mr. Bush, Republicans have been despairing over Mr. Gore’s rise and their man’s troubles. They, too, should knock it off. Against long odds namely, peace and unprecedented prosperity of a kind that can propel an incumbent party to another victory Mr. Bush is still very much in it. Both candidates seem to have successfully weathered their “I’d rather be right than be president” phases. The line in question belongs to Walter Mondale, who faced the dismal task of running against incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984.
It was “morning in America,” the Reagan campaign said; the economy was booming after a nasty recession that permanently wrung inflation from the U.S. economy. U.S. prestige abroad was on the rise. The crisis in confidence of Americans in their government, which Jimmy Carter diagnosed in a famous speech following the 1979 energy crisis, looked to have been a loss of confidence mainly in the ability and will of his administration to identify the sources of this unnecessary American decline and to address them with vigor. This Mr. Reagan had done, and he was clearly going to be rewarded with a second term for it.
Hence Mr. Mondale’s indulgence of the consolations of philosophy. He knew he was right on the issues and if the people themselves couldn’t see it, well, that was their problem. He would not compromise himself by tailoring his correct opinions to please them.
In democratic (small “d”) politics, this is the sensibility of a loser. The nobility it self-interestedly assigns to defeat comes directly at the expense of faith in the judgment of the people. It’s an anti-democratic sensibility: The people, those fools, are incapable of seeing the truth, too stubborn to be persuaded by right argument.
If this were true, we’d be in deep trouble. Decadence, if it appears in a democratic country, would have to take the form of an infection among the people themselves. Such a diagnosis is quite radical in its implications. If you conclude that the people aren’t fit to decide their affairs, who should? Fortunately, there is less evidence that this diagnosis is true than that losing politicians need rationalizations for their defeat. Democratic (small “d” again) electioneering is persuasion as such. If a candidate is not persuasive, he won’t win and won’t deserve to win. The idea is to be right and to be president. Anybody who sees an essential contradiction between those two things is in trouble.
Mr. Gore has (briefly) been in such trouble, and so has Mr. Bush. In August before the convention, his daughter and political confidante, Karenna Gore Schiff, was caught musing about her father’s state of mind. She averred that he knew who he was and what he stood for, and winning the presidency was less important to him than those two things. Mr. Bush’s moment came the week before last, in Robert Novak’s syndicated column. Clearly on the basis of a not-for-attribution discussion with the GOP candidate, Mr. Novak wrote that Mr. Bush had come to see the contest as a fundamental choice between Mr. Gore’s desire for a bigger and more intrusive federal government and his on vision of more freedom for people. As Mr. Novak described Mr. Bush’s view, if people preferred big government, then so be it.
Now, now. In neither case was it time for the candidate to become fatalistic. The views of the people are not a given in politics. They are susceptible to change, based on the way a campaign runs and a candidate campaigns. If people are looking favorably on bigger government, it’s Mr. Bush’s job to talk them out of it. If people don’t warm to the real Al Gore, Mr. Gore needs to do a better job explaining why they should.
Both candidates seem to understand this now. With the end of the Gore bounce, Mr. Bush has regained his footing. The economy is not an irresistible force propelling Mr. Gore into the White House. Nor is some insatiable American taste for big government. Mr. Bush has a winnable election on his hands.
So does Mr. Gore. There is no apparent desire on the part of the electorate to punish Mr. Gore for the personal disapproval large majorities feel toward President Clinton. Nor is Mr. Gore’s heart too pure for the job. No excuses, please. In democratic politics, the winner more often than not deserves his victory, the loser his defeat.