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An October Surprise Again?

by Itai Sneh on Sep 19, 2000

Itai Sneh

            In the summer of 1968, rumors circulated that the Democrats were racing toward an agreement that would end the Vietnam War in time for the presidential election involving Hubert H. Humphrey, the incumbent vice president, and Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent. This prospect was labeled the October Surprise.

            The Nixon team beseeched the South Vietnamese to await a Republican victory and promised an ample reward. Talk of a conclusion to the Vietnam War came to naught; Humphrey lost anyway.

            Humphrey's fate was probably sealed by the impact that the North
Vietnamese and the Viet Cong achieved in February 1968 by launching the Tet
Offensive. Its success, after all, handed Humphrey the nomination after
President Lyndon Johnson withdrew.

            Talk about an October Surprise resurfaced in 1980 in another national
security setting. The Iran hostage crisis had sapped the life out of a
forlorn Carter administration, already drained by economic problems and
internal challenges. The absence of a pre-election breakthrough in hostage
negotiations and a failed rescue attempt sealed Jimmy Carter's fate.

            Will this year produce its own October Surprise? If so, who will initiate it?

            Such a political earthquake is likely only when the elections are close
and contingent on defined issues over which Americans seemingly lack full
control. Revelations about past indiscretions of either candidate — Al
Gore or George W. Bush — could break this pattern, but such news now seems

            Gore could truly be his own man if Bill Clinton would resign. Clinton
would presumably have run for re-election if the Constitution had not
forbidden him to do so. His resignation would certainly make a smashing
October Surprise, but it appears highly unlikely he will yield even a
single day of power and public attention.

            A peace agreement in the Middle East would help Hillary Clinton's campaign
for a Senate seat in New York, and Gore in Florida and the Middle West.
Today's public diplomacy might lessen the value of such an accomplishment
as a true surprise.

            A revived round of hostilities with a belligerent Iraq would be risky.
American soldiers might be killed, and Bush and Cheney could say that they
would have handled it better. Dick Cheney, at least, has the experience to
support such bravado.

            Restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, or at least dramatically
reducing the American sanctions against Fidel Castro's regime, would be
brave but counterproductive since it could cost the Democrats Florida.

            How about attacking Yugoslavia again? The same dictatorship still reigns
in the Balkans. Montenegro, governed by a democratically elected,
pro-Western leader might be the next target for Slobodan Milosevic after
his defeat in Kosovo. Another air campaign without Western casualties,
resulting in the ouster of the oppressive regime in Belgrade could be a
fine October Surprise.

            Gore could also initiate a domestic surprise, over which he would have
much more control. This would have the advantage of solidifying the
Democratic center while reaching out to centrist independents.

            For example, Gore could present a prospective cabinet before the November
election. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as interior secretary? Rep. Maxine Waters
for housing and urban development? Bill Bradley as secretary of labor?
Alice Rivlin in the Treasury? Rev. Jesse Jackson as ambassador to the
United Nations? Sen. Bob Kerrey as secretary of health and human services?
Andrew Cuomo as chief of staff? This action might be interpreted as a
striking demonstration of confidence –or weakness — rather than as a true
October Surprise.

            Even more innovative would be an outreach to prominent moderate
Republicans with offers of, say, secretary of defense to Sen. John McCain,
secretary of state to Colin Powell, and attorney general to Rudolph Giuliani.

            What could Bush do to produce his own October Surprise? As the challenger
he possesses fewer options. He could promise to pick up where his father –
and his own running mate who served as secretary of defense — left off
with Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, thus neutralizing criticism that they
did not finish the job of routing Saddam Hussein in 1991.

            Bush might also build upon his presumed warm relations with Mexico by
working with its new leader, Vicente Fox. A mutual program providing for
investments, jobs and stronger border security could improve Bush's
foreign-policy credentials and appeal to Latino voters. Fox, however, might
not oblige.

            Bush could also present his own cabinet with those same major Republican
figures of Powell, McCain and Giuliani. In addition, Bush could also give
Democrats key positions, such as offering Sen. Joe Lieberman education
secretary as a consolation prize. Or he might announce initiatives that
would be counter-intuitive to his conservative agenda, on gun control or
the environment to defuse accusations that he is beholden to the National
Rifle Association or to polluters.

            In 2000, no national security crisis similar to either 1968 or 1980 is
looming. While Gore has surged in recent polls, the race is close. A real
October Surprise could sway the results one way or another. Its absence in
previous years doomed incumbent Democrats because they seemed to be unable
to control the lives of Americans at home and abroad.

            Will Gore prove that he has the capacity to be in charge and to be
innovative at the same time? If he will, his November victory will be no

Itai Sneh is an assistant professor of history for world civilizations, human rights and international law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.