January 10, 2001
Man with No Mandate
Bush’s election victory also followed a campaign that benefited from two key factors that call into question whether the American people were presented with an impartial view of the candidates and thus whether they were prepared to cast well-informed votes.
The first factor was the merciless criticism from many in the mainstream press of Gore’s supposed exaggerations.
Throughout the campaign, the press was relentless in criticizing Gore as a man who didn’t know who he was, a candidate engaged in constant reinventions and a politician who stretched the truth in an almost pathological manner.
At times, Gore-the-exaggerator stories seemed to consume the press, particularly the pundit television shows such as CNN’s Crossfire and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.
Newspaper reporters such as Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post and Katharine Seelye of The New York Times, in their zeal to catch Gore in an exaggeration, actually altered a Gore quote on the environment to make it seem like he was taking too much credit for helping to clean up toxic waste. [For details, see "Al Gore v. The Press".]
The national Republican leadership eagerly contributed to this portrait of Gore as untrustworthy.
The Republican National Committee's "opposition research" -- or "oppo" teams -- combed Gore’s statements and successfully planted their hostile interpretations of Gore's words with political reporters.
The RNC ran regular Gore-exaggeration updates on their Web site, even producing an online documentary of Gore’s RNC-diagnosed mental illness – his pathological insincerity.
In the final weeks of the campaign, the Republicans pounded Gore's supposed untrustworthiness with television ads in key swing states, including Florida.
All the while, Bush remained publicly committed to his campaign pledge to elevate the debate and avoid negative personal attacks.
The second factor benefiting Bush was the press’ disinterest in the details of the policy differences between the two candidates.
For instance, Bush was never forced to fully detail his Social Security partial privatization plan nor directly answer the question of whether there was a pot of $1 trillion in Social Security funds promised to both current and near retirees and to young workers to set up private retirement accounts.
Education was another important issue that suffered from lack of clarity.
Though late in the campaign, the Rand Corporation issued a study that called into question Bush’s claims to have reformed and dramatically improved the education system in Texas, the press never pieced together for the American voters what the truth was.
Many Americans went to the polls on Election Day assured that Bush had really performed education miracles in Texas.
Bush also was never forced to fully account for his state’s poor environmental record. Under Bush, Texas became the most polluted state in the country and Houston became the most polluted city. While this was reported sporadically, the national press failed to probe the record thoroughly.
Instead, the media coverage focused on the horse race or on the latest Gore exaggeration story.
The pundit shows were more interested in Gore’s claim to have visited fire-damaged land in Texas with the Federal Emergency Management Agency director when he had instead traveled with the deputy director – a mistake detected and trumpeted by the GOP's "oppo" team.