American Elections and Campaigns – The 2000s: Old Rivalries, New Millennium

Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush during one of the presidential debates in the 2000 election season. (The New York Times)

As Bill Clinton’s presidency neared its end, the presidential election of 2000 saw Vice President Al Gore compete for the White House against George W. Bush, the son of the former eponymous president. Bush and Gore both enjoyed respective support from the Republicans and Democrats, owed in large part by their previous years of direct and indirect experience in politics. The name recognition of the Bush family – as well as their substantial wealth in their pre-politics business ventures – made Bush the most popular candidate among Republican voters. Meanwhile, Gore’s experience as Clinton’s vice president resonated with the Democrats. Throughout his second term as president, Clinton maintained his economic and domestic reform policies, and was able to secure a budget surplus in the economy for the first time since 1969. After defeating his competitors in the primaries, Bush chose former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to serve as his running mate. Gore meanwhile selected Connecticut Senator Joe Liberman as his prospective vice president, becoming the first Jewish American to be nominated for the office by a mainline political party. Throughout the campaign season, domestic affairs were the principal subject of focus by both candidates. Bush used several lingering grievances held in response to the Clinton administration to criticize the Democratic Party at the national level. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu – a two-day skirmish between American military forces and the Somali National Alliance – resulted in several U.S. casualties. Although the larger Operation Gothic Serpent was a technical tactical victory for the U.S., the chaos that had ensued in the battle – and the deaths of American service personnel – was highlighted by Bush as a tragic example of using military forces for what he called “nation building.” In spite of this, no other controversy remained more pertinent in the election cycle than the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Despite it being two years after the scandal was first exposed, the lingering controversy of President Clinton having an extra-marital affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky tarnished the Democratic Party’s platform in the 2000 election season. Amid Bush’s promise to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House, Gore made a conscious effort to distance his campaign from Clinton’s presidency. As a gesture of marital fidelity, Gore kissed his wife on-stage at the Democratic National Convention, and frequently refused to appear with Clinton at campaign rallies. 

Photograph of then-President Bill Clinton with then-White House Intern Monica Lewinsky, 1997. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum)

Meanwhile, the two vice presidential candidates were engaged in their own rapid campaign race. Both Cheney and Lieberman would often campaign in the same states within mere days of each other, the closest scenario being when they both attended the “Taste of Polonia” festival in Chicago, Illinois over the Labor Day weekend. The presidential debates in the 2000 election were hosted by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates. Part of a new series of criteria by the organization barred all third-party candidates from participating in debates hosted by them. A subsequent lawsuit by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was settled with an undisclosed amount and a formal apology from the debate hosts. Throughout the election season, quotations from both Gore and Bush were used for satirical purposes. Gore’s frequent use of statistics in his talking points were dismissed by Bush as “fuzzy math.” Meanwhile, actor and comedian Will Ferrell popularized the phrase “strategery” to parody Bush, to the point where his own staffers started using it. In regards to Gore mentioning his political involvement in the government committees that formed the Internet, many critics responded with the satirical phrase, “Al Gore invented the Internet.” The most notable instance of the 2000 presidential election were its results, as it was deemed too close to call on Election Day. Florida’s electoral votes remained undecided, as the margin for Bush to be considered the winner was within an extremely close margin. By law, the State of Florida conducted an official recount of the tallied votes while a series of legal battles were waged. The legal actions culminated in the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore, determining in a 5-4 decision that the Florida recount had to be stopped due to the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. It was then determined that Bush won the entirety of Florida’s electoral votes, rendering him the official winner of the 2000 presidential election. The controversy lingered for several years throughout Bush’s administration, and has often been brought up in more recent discussions on American elections and the controversies thereof.

Satellite trucks parked outside the Florida State Capitol building during the vote dispute and recount of the 2000 presidential election. (State Library and Archives of Florida)
Pro-Bush and Pro-Gore protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court building after the 2000 presidential election was declared “too close to call.” (Elvert Barnes via Flickr)

Four years later, the 2004 presidential election saw the incumbent Republican George W. Bush pitted against the Democratic challenger John Kerry. In the first three years of his presidency, Bush enjoyed a relatively high approval rating by the general public. His leadership in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq helped give many Americans a brief sense of national unity, solidarity, and confidence in the face of a global crisis. In spite of the victory of American military forces capturing Saddam Hussein, approval for Bush’s presidency declined as the Iraq War continued. After the capture of both Hussein and Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad, questions began to be asked if the U.S. was making any substantial progress in achieving its long-term goals in the Middle East, or if there were any to begin with. In spite of these questions and subsequent doubts being raised, fighting terrorism and protecting national security were considered high priorities for voters who supported Bush at the polls. Bush went further with the pro-defense and pro-military angle of his campaign by criticizing Kerry for being a “flip-flopper” on America’s foreign policy approach. Kerry meanwhile criticized Bush for his military policies, specifically the allegation that the U.S. had effectively alienated its allies abroad through its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Using the phrase “stronger at home, respected in the world,” Kerry called for deeper examinations of the strategic errors in Iraq, tending to the American economy, and advancing more progressive forms of health care. In keeping with the increased use of the Internet for politics, both Bush and Kerry had their own campaign websites where users could read complete speeches, political platforms, and watch campaign videos and commercials online. The presidential debates were once again hosted by the Commission for Presidential Debates, excluding both the Libertarian and the Green Parties. Kerry was considered to be the winner of the first debate, as his composed and well-organized demeanor contrasted Bush’s visible frustration as harder questions were asked. While the Democrats enjoyed a boost in the polls after the debate, a video broadcast related to the wars in the Middle East would alter this shift. A video tape obtained and broadcasted by the major American media networks showed Osama bin Laden – the founder and then-leader of international terrorist network al-Qaeda – addressing the American people. He claimed responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and criticized the Bush administration for its military responses in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the video effectively taunted the United States, Bush’s formal response to Osama bin Laden gave him a surge in the polls before the election. The surge proved to be advantageous for Bush, as he won the election with 286 electoral votes to Kerry’s 251. While the results were narrower than in previous elections, the ensuing controversies were remarkably mild compared to that of 2000. Nonetheless, the more polarized results reflected a growing sense of dissatisfaction towards Bush’s presidency, and it would be in 2008 when the victorious candidate made use of the nationwide political divides by campaigning primarily on the grounds of inspiring “change.”

Then-President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry during the third and final presidential debate of the 2004 election season. (Associated Press)
Then-President George W. Bush receiving John Kerry’s concession phone call, confirming the former’s successful re-election, 2004. (Public Domain)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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