A raw vote plurality and the questionable intervention of the robed gang of five notwithstanding, Al Gore lost the 2000 election. That was clear to anyone who watched his dismal campaign. A wooden candidate evoking the pretense of synthetic dynamism and running against, rather than on, an obviously powerful message. Gore lost. So, too, with Gray Davis, only in spades. The stiff Davis didn't even attempt the pretence and, in any event, couldn't have pulled it off against a cinematic, not to mention media, super hero. Gore lost, Davis lost as did Bob Dole and Papa Bush in elections past.
What is the lesson here? Elections are lost, perhaps as often as they are won. Perhaps more often. To win, one has to win. That means, if not electrifying the public, then at least eliciting a spark. Listening to Bush & Company pontificating this past week to selected friendly audiences, sanctimoniously repeating the now discredited "truths" that were used to sell our preemptive interventionism, I was struck by how much ammunition they are providing for the inevitable foreign policy debate of 2004. This and a still lackluster jobless recovery with ballooning deficits (and the resulting ballooning interest rates that will certainly follow) provide powerful arguments for the opposition. But in the end, someone, whether it be Howard Dean, Wes Clark or John Kerry, will have to win. That's the rub.
Everyone is trying to find the message in California. Democratic optimists see it as a sign of powerful dissatisfaction that will ultimately and naturally translate into a Bush defeat. My good friend Clifford Kulwin in a Friday night sermon reminded us that when people are energized by a substantive cause, they can be driven to the polls in numbers that Americans rarely see. Republicans have taken heart that the heretofore solidly Democratic stronghold of California went 60% for their party's people. All true, all valid. There is deep dissatisfaction, it can lead to unprecedented turnout and party loyalty is not what it used to be. But, in the end, it may be much simpler. Gray Davis lost.
I think the recall set a terrible precedent in a country where politicians already are constantly looking over their shoulders or at polls before making decisions. Jack Kennedy would have difficulty finding the courageous to profile in these times. Then again, I wouldn't over read the precedent. After all, we're talking about California where politics is always a little off the national norm – lot's of propositions, ultra conservatives and ultra liberals. It's hard to keep tabs and difficult to make predictions about what might come next, much less consider what happens out there predictive.
So I would suggest that those who will ultimately emerge from the nine, and especially he who ultimately emerges as the One, focus on a single truth. Elections are won or lost. Without discounting the role of the voter, it is the runner who has to win the race. Al Gore and Gray Davis lost. The country can't afford another such capitulation.