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What the Loser Should Do

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He'll be back with a vengeance in 2004. Here's how he should get in shape

What should the loser do? First, be elaborately gracious--for 15 or 20 minutes, anyway. Call for national unity. Congratulate the jerk who beat you. Walk away jauntily, as if you'd won. In a sense, you did. No talk about stolen elections. No "I was robbed!" Don't look back. Americans are sick of the subject anyway, and have drawn their own conclusions.

Get to work on 2004. Richard Nixon, having lost to John Kennedy in 1960 by a margin of problematic votes, worked for eight years in the Republican wilderness, speaking to every Rotary and Kiwanis that would have him. But Nixon had more ground to make up. He was defeated in the California race for Governor in 1962; an aura of redoubled loser clung to him like 5 o'clock shadow. It was early 1968 before he looked like a winner again.

The loser this time starts with a constituency of exactly 50% of America--give or take a precinct. The entire American yin has been radicalized against the whole American yang. The memory of the 2000 postelection chadfest will revive an angry energy in 2004, which will produce the biggest voter turnout in history.

The winner this time will run for re-election in 2004. Should the loser fear he won't be renominated for that race? George Bush is probably safe with the Republicans. Al Gore has the Hillary problem, which four years hence may be powerful.

There is a certain hilarious motif of dynasties at work. Henry Adams said he grew up thinking every respectable American family included at least one President. His had two--John Adams and John Quincy Adams. The Bushes would like to make it two. The Clintons would like to make it two in the same generation.

The man who loses in 2000 must spend the next four years repairing his greatest weakness. The yammering classes have decided that Gore's problem is a weird, deficient personality, and Bush's is a dull, incurious brain. I have sometimes suspected the reverse: that Gore is a nicer guy than imagined but not as smart as he would like everyone to think; and that Bush is smarter, but a lot less nice, than he seems. The two men even out, in some irritating way.

Gore's ruthless ambition impairs his judgment. If he became President, and thus fulfilled his ambition, would his judgment improve? The nation must hope so. On the other hand, if Gore were to lose, would the loss mellow his ambition and deepen his character? Would he stop running up and down rope lines like an afternoon game-show host?

If he loses, Gore should disconnect himself completely from power for a couple of years--the power that addles his judgment and scrambles his more decent instruments. He should move far from Washington (not to Tennessee) and find a job among real people. He should take a vow of political silence. He should grow a beard, discard his ego and, for two years, listen to people. He should learn to walk like a normal human being.

If Bush loses, he might devote time to standing on the beach at Padre Island with pebbles in his mouth, orating at the gulls. He certainly should devote months to reading books on history, foreign policy, science, technology and economics. He should call in tutors.

The truth is that each of these candidates would be a better man if he lost the 2000 election. Life has been too kind to these princes. Both would profit from the loss. The nation would be better served. Gore and Bush could consider 2000 a dress rehearsal. They could learn from their mistakes and work to repair their inadequacies.

It will not happen. One of them is going to have to learn to be adequate while actually living in the White House.


Cover Date: December 4, 2000



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