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An Inconvenient Truth For Democrats

By       Message SteveDenning       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   12 comments

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An Inconvenient Truth For Democrats

Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize is a reminder that on any rational basis he should have won the 2000 election. The country was at peace and enjoying unprecedented economic prosperity. Crime rates were declining. There were major foreign policy accomplishments. Gore himself was one of the few vice presidents in history to have made a substantive contribution to an administration. And unlike most U.S. vice presidents, he had the strong, explicit backing of the then president, Bill Clinton, whose policies, despite a sex scandal, remained remarkably popular. And Gore, who had 24 years of national and international experience, was facing a candidate who had no national or international experience. He should have won by a mile.

So why did he lose?

Long before the Supreme Court intervened in Florida, Gore had put himself in a position to lose the election by failing to understand the language of leadership.

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One element was his inability to communicate who he was and what he stood for and who he was communicating to:

·         Gore wasn’t clear on the story of why he should be president:  Did Gore support the policies of the Clinton administration or was he going to fight to change those policies? These ambiguities showed through to the electorate and undermined everything he said.

  • Gore didn’t understand the audience’s story. In 2000, the US was prospering and the electorate were largely satisfied with the administration that Gore had been a part of for eight years. Yet Gore talked mainly about problems, followed up by promises to solve them with major government programs – something the electorate had little interest in.

·         Gore wasn’t comfortable with his own story: In 2000, Gore wasn’t comfortable with who he was and what he stood for. Was he an associate of Bill Clinton or not? What sort of a person was he? In the debate, he was articulate and knowledgeable, but didn’t seem at ease with himself.

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The other element was that Gore was unable to connect with the electorate and communicate a compelling narrative as to why he should be elected:

·         Gore failed to get the electorate’s attention: “I’m not,” said Gore toward the end of the first presidential debate, “a very exciting politician.” When Gore said those words, it wasn’t news: he was confirming what his critics had often said about him. But he was revealing something fatal in a transformational leader. He was conceding that even he wasn’t fully convinced in himself as a leader. If Gore wasn’t excited about his own candidacy and his change agenda, how could he expect the electorate to be?  

·         He didn’t stimulate the electorate’s desire for change: Gore ran for election as a transformational leader. Instead of dwelling on the question, by analogy with Ronald Reagan in 1980, “Are you better off today than eight years ago?” he asked “Will we be better off four years from this day?” For most voters, the answer to the first question would have been a resoundingly positive “Yes!” The answer to the second question was much less certain. While Bush generally embraced the successful economic policies of the Clinton administration, paradoxically Gore ran as someone who wanted to change policy. He presented himself as someone who wanted to fight and the electorate was in no mood for more partisan fighting.

·         His reasons didn’t resonate: In the presidential debates, Gore was more articulate than Bush. He kept giving reason after reason, statistic after statistic, without realizing that when people don’t like you as a person, the more reasons you give, the more your reasons will be perceived as problematic. According to all the news services, Gore was the clear winner of the first presidential debate, but it didn’t matter: Bush surged ahead in the polls and went on to victory.

·         His body language contradicted what he said: In the U.S. presidential campaign of 2000, Al Gore’s robotic performances were the fodder of late-night comedy. The charisma-challenged candidate put everyone to sleep. His petulant sighs and stiffly aggressive manner made him look like the smart kid we all hated in eighth grade. No one wanted to listen to what he had to say. Despite a strong case on the merits, he lost the election.


Now, eight years later, we have an obvious front-runner for the Democratic nomination. She enjoys many of the same advantages as Gore:

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  • As in 1999, the economy is in the Democrats’ favor.
  • As in 1999, on foreign policy, the electorate is in tune with the Democrats message.
  • As in 1999, the Republican party is weakened by scandal and incompetence.
  • As in 1999, the “obvious” nominee has the advantage of a strong explicit endorsement of a remarkably popular former president.

But she also suffers from the same handicaps:

·         As a good student who does her homework and is articulate in debates, Hillary has not found a way to make herself likable. She has been unable to communicate what sort of a person she really is and what she really believes in.

·         Like Gore, Hillary generally makes her case through abstract arguments, discussing and analyzing problems and proposing solutions. This leaves an audience dazed rather than inspired. It fails to engage them at an emotional level. Like Gore in 2000, she tends to sound mechanistic and bureaucratic.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)

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