How did Al Gore lose the election that seemed, just a few weeks ago, so firmly in the palm of his hand? Did he divorce himself enough from the legacy of Bill Clinton? Or did he divorce himself far too thoroughly? Was it too much populism? Not enough populism? That Tipper kiss?
Maybe it was the debates. Definitely the debates. Yes. Too much sighing, perhaps, or too little consistency.
At the end of the day, or the beginning of the morning, as it were, Gore seems to have lost this agonizingly close election in the most heartbreaking way: He just couldn't inspire voters. There was little else negative to ascribe to him as a candidate: He's intelligent, dutiful and a loving husband and father. He worked extraordinarily hard throughout this election, running himself nearly into the ground during the homestretch. But the fire in his belly just didn't transmit. There was no spirit in his voice, no excitement in his words. This election was all about turnout. And Gore just couldn't turn his voters out.
Heaven knows he tried. The Gore camp enlisted celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Stephen King to make phone calls and harnessed activist powerhouses like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the NAACP. The vice president trudged back and forth across the country entreating voters and making the case for informed, careful leadership. But he just couldn't find his voice, or a trace of momentum.
Even after the Democratic convention, when Gore looked, just for a moment, like he was on a roll, he couldn't keep up the feel-good, balloon-dropping aura that engulfed him and, however briefly, possessed him. Almost as soon as the triumphant music faded in Los Angeles, Gore was back to the prognostications and schoolmarmish speeches that played so poorly among voters.
Wednesday morning, back in Nashville, Democratic insiders are already hurling accusations: The Gore campaign made a critical error in yanking Clinton out of Florida when they did, as one popular theory goes. But Al Gore never wanted to win this race because of Bill Clinton. He wanted to win in spite of him.
So perhaps it's fitting that even in defeat, Clinton seems poised to dominate Gore's political life. This was the man, after all, who brought Gore to the executive branch, who shared books and jokes with him, and then, as Gore sees it, betrayed him not once with a shocking infidelity, but twice: By turning just enough voters against the administration with his various extracurricular activities, the President helped crush Gore's chances at victory Tuesday night. Clinton's inexorable charm got him elected, got him in trouble, and finally, set Gore up for a defeat. It was Bush, after all, who charmed voters, not Gore. It was Bush who managed to captivate with his easy laugh and his loose-limbed grace. Gore was stuck with the old caricature: A stiff, a robot, a typical policy wonk.
And while most will recognize Gore's own failings or simple political inadequacies as the real root of his loss, Gore himself may not be so self-absorbed. As he looks back over the past eight years, and ponders what might have been over the next four, the vice president will always be haunted by the specter of Bill Clinton. The President, in all his glorious imperfection, embodies everything Gore despises, and everything he wanted so desperately to be.