Conservative pundits are scrambling to rescue Donald Trump from his conspiracy-minded statement in the third and final presidential debate that he will keep the country in “suspense” about whether he will accept the results of the Nov. 8 election. For many viewers, the remarks seemed to toy with important ideas like the legitimacy of American democracy and the orderly transfer of power.
The favorite line of defense: Al Gore.
As John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog put it:
Horrifying! Trump “upends a basic pillar of American democracy” by saying he will wait and see what happens on election day, because of his concern about voter fraud. But wait! Who was the last candidate who refused to accept the result on election day, as certified by election authorities? Al Gore. Did Gore “upend a basic pillar of American democracy” when he tried to overturn the result of the 2000 election?
Hinderaker is normally a gem of the Internet, in my opinion—a sharp, reliable, vigorous exponent of his political views. And he is no Trump patsy. But here he is just flat wrong. Gore did not “refuse to accept the result on election day” in 2000, nor did he try “to overturn the result of the 2000 election” when he availed himself of the legal apparatus offered to candidates in especially close elections.
Here’s what happened: In a rare historical fluke, the outcome of the Electoral College vote in 2000 hinged on the results in a single state, Florida. And after a roller coaster night of vote counting, in which the major television networks mistakenly called a victory for both Gore and George W. Bush, the margin between the two candidates was microscopic. Roughly one vote out of every 10,000.
This infinitesimal gap triggered an automatic recount. In other words, there was no “result on election day.” Florida law—not Al Gore—sent the game into overtime. And those same Florida election laws allowed for candidates in such a close contest to challenge the tally, which Gore understandably did.
Entire books have been written about the frantic legal and political maneuverings of the 36 days that folllowed—including one that I wrote with help from the immense files of my then-colleagues at The Washington Post. Suffice it to say, the effort to capture Florida, and the presidency, was a no-holds-barred affair on both sides of the dispute, and gave partisans plenty of fodder for a hundred feverish theories of “rigged” results. Confusing ballots, hanging chads, dueling state officials, grandstanding judges: you name it.
But at each crucial decision point, both camps appealed to the procedures set out in the U.S. Constitution and in relevant Florida election law. They sought the high ground in public opinion, not the low conspiratorial swamps. These legal guidelines weren’t always entirely clear—not surprising, given that statutes written with local races in mind were being stretched to the breaking point by the pressure of a presidential showdown. But disputes were settled in the proper venues: the courts.
Ultimately, a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court resolved the final lawsuit in favor of Bush (after a narrowly divided Florida Supreme Court settled the case in favor of Gore). A number of Democratic partisans urged the then-Vice President to keep fighting. If he had, it might be fair to say that he “tried to overturn the result.” But he didn’t.
Instead, Gore gave a concession speech that was widely hailed, by Republicans as well as Democrats, as a model of statesmanship and grace:
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new President-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.
Let’s hope that the vanquished candidate in this year’s election strikes that same tone—whether the results are clear in a matter hours, as they typically are, or sometime later. Americans can respect a hard-fought battle, but there is no room in presidential politics for a sore loser.