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Whichever Candidate Loses, It Won't Be a Soft Landing

October 29, 2000|Jonathan V. Last | Jonathan V. Last is a reporter at The Weekly Standard

WASHINGTON — Nine days from today, somebody will lose the presidential election. Whether it's Al Gore or George W. Bush, he is going to be seen as having let the election slip away. The consequences of his failure will be grave for the individual and serious for his party.

If Bush loses, the Republican Party will dissolve into chaotic, factionalized conflict. Bush's national political career will be finished, and the dynastic hopes for his brother, Jeb, will be shunted to the back burner. There will be blood on the floor. "It could look a little like 1929, with Republican establishment types jumping out windows," says the Hudson Institute's Marshall Whittmann.

The central appeal of Bush has always been his inevitability. This is why the Republican Party establishment signed on with him more than two years ago. When the establishment joined up with the Austin, Texas, crowd, all sorts of odd marriages were consummated: the religious right, movement conservatives, the K Street crowd and squishy moderates all compromised on their issues in the name of the greater Republican good. The Bush camp promised inevitability even in the face of a strong challenge from an unorganized and underfunded John McCain. Republicans needed to win, so they believed, anyway.

However, a Bush loss would burst one of the great bubbles in modern politics. There will be some in the GOP who will try to rationalize the loss by saying that the vice president of a successful two-term president is nearly unbeatable under the best of circumstances, and that Bush waged as good a fight as possible.

The counter-argument will be that the Republican establishment has selected three consecutive losers for the first time since the New Deal and shouldn't be allowed to pick a fourth. Bush, it will be pointed out, was in a position to win just two weeks before the election, and yet couldn't close the deal.

In a post-Bush world, there will be several different warring groups. Some will say that the GOP must abandon its pro-life stance, while others will say they need to be more committed to it. Some will say that the party needs to go farther than even Bush's "affirmative access" to court minorities, while others will say they need to take a firmer stance on constitutional principle.

But the main conflict would be a challenge to the Republican establishment itself. The GOP has always been a party that chooses its candidate by mass group-think. Going back from Bob Dole to George Bush Sr. to Ronald Reagan to Richard M. Nixon (Barry S. Goldwater is the exception that proves the rule), the Republican establishment almost always comes together around the consensus choice, the fellow who seems to have waited his turn. As one Republican strategist mused, "The next nominee will be a guy who challenges the GOP establishment orthodoxy. They won't have the power to anoint in 2004. The money men, the governors, their power will be diminished."

Should Bush lose, the "devolution" that Republicans love so much in government might come home to haunt them where they live.

A Gore loss would be even more devastating for Democrats. "There would be a lot of bloodletting," says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Democrats have always believed that this election was theirs to lose. Yet, despite President Bill Clinton's high job-approval ratings, despite the eight years of peace and prosperity, Gore may well lose the election.

Keep in mind that a Gore loss means that Republicans almost certainly hold both houses of Congress. We would have undivided GOP control of government for the first time since [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. The Democratic civil war that would ensue could be quite gothic.

In one corner will be the New Democrats. Clinton broke through in 1992 as a result of triangulation. He was the first to run for the presidency as a New Democrat. Gore has lurched left since the conventions and has wound up using pollster Stanley Greenberg's version of middle-class populism. In the course of his migration, Gore has discarded much of Clinton's moderate rhetoric and any pretense of challenging Democratic interest groups on issues such as education. "He abandoned a winning formula to adopt populism," says a Democratic strategist.

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