Will Gore follow Andrew Jackson - or Samuel Tilden?
As Al Gore contemplates his heartbreakingly close failure to reach his life's goal of becoming president of the United States, perhaps he'll take solace in the stories of two men: Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland.
Like Mr. Gore, both of them won the popular vote but lost the presidency. Yet four years later, each man rebounded to win the nation's top job.
After Gore's loss to George W. Bush, some think the vice president's star could fade, especially amid criticism that he botched a sure-win race in a golden economy. Also, he'll have no high-profile public office from which he will be widely visible.
Yet others say Americans may have new sympathy and affection for Gore - something, ironically, he was not able to muster much of during the campaign. Wednesday night's well-received concession speech showed a more personal and, to some, more appealing side of the vice president. And if the economy slips during the next four years, his populist message might resonate better.
"The political odyssey of Al Gore is by no means finished," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "People may not have grown fonder of him after all this, but they at least admire that he's got lots of fight in him - that he's got a bit of the badger in him."
Then there's the possibility that the loss will endear him as a kind of electoral-process martyr.
"He's got a real shot at turning himself into a historic figure who's got just a little bit of a halo around his head - so that he's not just a regular pol anymore," says historian Richard Shenkman. Just as many Americans took President Clinton's side during the impeachment drama, "many people don't like what's been done to Al Gore - and they'll feel an emotional bond to him."
It's the kind of connection he often lacked during the campaign. Criticized for his formal, even patronizing manner, Gore was a famously uneven campaigner - warm, funny, and spontaneous at one stop, stiff and scripted at the next.
As for how he'll act in the coming months, he could continue in the unifying tone of his concession speech. Or he could essentially never give up the fight - and follow in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson.
After winning the popular vote in 1824, but not the presidency, Jackson had a decent interval of playing "the gracious loser," says Mr. Shenkman. But he never "made nice" with John Quincy Adams - who won the election in a horse-trading vote by the House of Representatives. For the next four years, "Jackson went around saying he'd been swindled - and no one called him unpatriotic for doing it." Then he built a political movement based on electoral reforms aimed at avoiding the chicanery of 1824. In 1828, Jackson won the first of two presidential terms.
In 1888, when President Cleveland lost the electoral vote, Mrs. Cleveland famously told the staff not to break anything as they left the White House. They would be back, she said. And they were, four years later.
(The only other candidate to win the popular vote, but not the presidency, was Samuel Tilden in 1876. Unlike Jackson and Cleveland, Tilden, who was ill, was little heard from after losing.)
If Gore wants to emulate Jackson or Cleveland, one big hurdle may be skepticism within his own party. Among some Democrats, there's a perception "that the election was his to lose and he lost it," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington.
Other Democrats - including Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, or Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - may aim for the party's 2004 nomination. But Gore has a trump card: "It'll be hard for any other Democrat to match him, in the sense that he's owed another shot," says Professor Arterton.
In the meantime, there's talk Gore could become president of Harvard University. But this high-profile launch pad for another presidential bid would have clear downsides, says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania: "It wouldn't give him access to the constituencies he needs - or the time to pump the hands he needs to pump."
Whatever Gore decides, he doesn't have to choose too soon. "He can let the chattering classes talk for a while," says Mr. Birkner, "and then make a decision."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society