The Washington Times

One thing is certain about George W. Bush and Al Gore: One of them is going to lose. To the victor, victory requires no explanation: The outcome is as it should have been, given the self-evident excellence of the candidate, the campaign, the strategy, the issues, the message, etc. There is no need to pick at victory, especially not when there are parties to go to as well as the executive branch of government to run.

Defeat is very different. The vanquished are unlikely to accept the victor’s simple explanation for the outcome; namely, that the victors were superior in all respects. Rather, the losers seek an explanation for failure that is satisfactory to them as losers. In other words, they seek consolation for the present and lessons for the future.

The first impulse in defeat is to lay it at the hands of cruel fate: The election was simply unwinnable, by anyone, by any means. Who could have beaten Ronald Reagan in 1984? But the 2000 election (unlike 1984) has been characterized by the solid conviction of each side that it could and would win. Therefore, appeals to inevitability will have little force for the losers this time around.

What, then, would Democrats say about the defeat of Al Gore, or Republicans about the defeat of George W. Bush? There is good reason to think that defeat in either case will lead to a fractured party in deep trouble. For Democrats, the first impulse will be to blame Mr. Gore personally. He ought, in theory, to have been incumbent heir to unprecedented peace and prosperity. One could not ask for better conditions in which to seek the Oval Office from the vice presidency. All the electoral modeling ever done suggests that the incumbent party is retained in such circumstances. How bad must a candidate be to lose in these conditions?

But that’s only the first cut. Because there are two ways to look at the failure of Mr. Gore to take hold of the baton. One is that he dropped it; the other is that President Bill Clinton himself was the one who dropped it. The real legacy was peace, prosperity and scandal – and any Democrat in Mr. Gore’s position would have found himself hobbled from the beginning. Who would want to try to follow in the footsteps of someone who had a tawdry fling in the Oval Office, then lied flagrantly to the American people about it? It is not good to be impeached, after all, even if one is acquitted. Democrats have so far largely spared Mr. Clinton any undue recrimination. But the predicate of that is a Gore victory. If Mr. Gore loses, the Clinton record is on the table again.

Then there is the unsettled struggle within the Democratic Party over policy, specifically, the battle between the centrist New Democrats and the party’s progressive wing. But which was Mr. Gore? Did he lose because he stepped away from centrist themes and embraced the populism of the progressives? Or, to the contrary, did he rise the highest in polls in the weeks after his fervently populist pitch at the Democratic convention, only to fall back when he reached toward the center weeks later?

In the end, though, Mr. Gore in the eyes of his own party is a man of the New Democrat wing; the progressives simply don’t regard him as one of their own. The natural impulse will be for the New Democrats to focus on the failure of the messenger and the progressives to focus on the message.

And if George W. Bush should lose? It would be tempting for Republicans to conclude that in the end, the peace-and-prosperity environment did indeed make the election unwinnable for Mr. Bush. Except that now, two weeks before, the election looks entirely winnable. Therefore, the question is likely to be what happened at the very end to turn voters against Mr. Bush. There is no policy split among Republicans today similar to the one that divides their opponents into New Democrats and progressives. Mr. Bush’s “establishment” candidacy had wide and deep support within the party, and his policy proposals can rightly be seen as the essence of mainstream thinking within the GOP these days. Republicans will resist the conclusion that their policy proposals are wrong; they think reform has a direction, and that their market-oriented proposals have captured it.

Mr. Bush has been a national figure for only a very short period. If he loses, the easiest conclusion for Republicans to reach will be that his lack of national experience and exposure was something no amount of supposed charm could make up for – a conclusion about the messenger more than the message.

Those interested in a preview of the 2004 election – it’s never too early, you know – should look carefully at the competing stories the losers tell themselves about what happened in 2000. That’s because in politics, history is always about the next campaign.