May the Best Man Lose

When Sidney Blumenthal published his groundbreaking study of American politics in 1980, he called it The Permanent Campaign . His thesis, which later found practical application in the White House war room, had it that today’s elected officials never really stopped campaigning. Mr. Blumenthal’s book never looked so prescient as it does today, three weeks into the post-election campaign.

The result in Florida has been certified, but it remains uncertain. George W. Bush apparently believes his vacuous victory speech on Nov. 26 ought to settle matters, and it did, though not in the way the governor intended. In announcing that, by golly, Democrats and Republicans share a common interest in good schools and prescription-drug benefits for senior citizens, Mr. Bush confirmed that he surely is the C student he seemed to be before Election Day. If he does, in fact, become President, his opponents will make quick work of him. Mr. Bush apparently believes that all will be forgiven once he takes the oath of office and that dealing with Democrats like Richard Gephardt, David Bonior, Charles Rangel and Tom Harkin will be just like dealing with those gun-loving Claghorn Democrats in the Texas Legislature. Now there’s a scary thought.

Contrast Mr. Bush’s themeless pudding of a speech with the determination, grit and intelligence of David Boies, the Gore team’s lawyer in chief, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has morphed from homey hamisher to attack dog in the post-election campaign. They believe their side won the election, and they are doing everything they can to persuade us, the voters, that they are right. We’re getting a good look at the brain trusts the two would-be Presidents have assembled, and it would appear that the aides Mr. Gore has assembled, especially Mr. Boies and Mr. Lieberman, are more qualified than Mr. Bush’s aides, who seem to be retreads like James Baker and Dick Cheney.

Mr. Boies is one of the nation’s finest litigators, a smooth operator who has just the right pitch and tone for the delicate brief he holds. Mr. Lieberman comes across as a man with a grievance, one who wishes the world to know how unjustly he is being treated. Republicans clearly did not think Mr. Lieberman had such fire; based on his reputation for bipartisan cooperation, for quiet integrity, they no doubt figured the man from Connecticut would throw in the towel rather than contest a clearly dubious result. They misjudged him.

Mr. Boies and Mr. Lieberman-products of the same Yale Law School culture that gave us a certain couple currently in residence in the White House-have the kind of brain power that could yet prevail as this tortured campaign journey moves through various courtrooms. Their persistence in the face of Team Bush’s smug attitude (you’d think losing the popular vote would humble Mr. Baker just a little) makes George W. Bush look like the country’s No. 1 schlemiel .

The question, however, is whether they can persuade the heartland-that vast expanse of geography decked out in Bush red on all the electoral maps-that they are legitimate winners. Sure, Mr. Boies and Mr. Lieberman may impress the Beltway–New York–Los Angeles power elites, but is Mr. Boies too smooth, and is Mr. Lieberman too passionate, for the rest of the country? From a public-relations perspective, it might have been better for Team Gore to have a fox-like country lawyer, a Sam Ervin, as its public face. Brains are important, but so is charm. Mr. Boise is a character all right, with his cheap suits and sneakers, but he doesn’t exactly reek of Ervin-like charisma.

Speaking of charisma and its absence, Al Gore finally emerged from virtual seclusion in recent days, and he appears to be suffering the effects of traumatic shock after watching his popular-vote victory rendered meaningless. The rest of the country, however, has been following this fascinating election with a bit more detachment. Forget the revolution-who knew that the Constitutional crisis would be televised, in all its arcane glory? We’re sitting in our living rooms watching CNN as three semi-rednecks in Florida examine punch cards in hopes of finding an elusive chad. In this interim between the World Series and the Super Bowl, with O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky relegated to tabloid history, well-that’s entertainment!

The political news channels, like CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, all feared that the end of Campaign 2000 would mean a freefall in their ratings. It’s clear now that they pray to a generous God: Not only has the campaign gone almost a month beyond Election Day, but the disputed result means that Campaign 2004 will begin when Bill Clinton’s successor is sworn in.

On second thought, Campaign 2004 already is underway. And the permanent campaign will, in fact, be televised.