2001: A Force to Reckon With
Tuesday's Supreme Court decision giving the presidency to George W. Bush, delivered in the dead of night in an opaque, anonymous opinion rendered by Justices who gave no oral presentation from the bench (as they usually do) but instead appropriately snuck out of the Court building through the garage, leaves the country facing a worrisome political future. The damage done to the courts and to the rule of law by the Supreme Court's judicial overreaching into politics and the damage done to democracy by the sudden interruption of a vote count (will the distressing, unprecedented televised image of vote-counters physically putting down ballots they had been examining become the symbol of an era?) have been commented upon by many observers. The politics of the struggle have been harder to assess. From the start, the contest presented a puzzle. Why, when the nation as a whole was prosperous, at peace and thoroughly unexcited by the candidates, each of whom belongs to the moderate wing of his party, did the two sides wage such ferocious political war? The easy answer is that the campaigns, their huge momentum unchecked by an election that had failed to produce a result, were simply propelled onward into the narrow confines of courtrooms, which therefore became the scene of a disproportionate sound and fury. It was comforting to reflect that the country at large, though entertained by the spectacle, was scarcely concerned about it--refusing, according to poll results, even to regard it as a "crisis." How dangerous could the quarreling be if it was the product of sheer statistical accident and reflected no deep, real division in the country?
As the struggle continued, this sanguine view became harder and harder to maintain. Each party, aided by its army of lawyers, of course was doing its partisan best to beat the other in court, but before long it became clear that something more serious and frightening was occurring. As noted previously in this space, one party, the Republican, was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths, both constitutionally and in the streets, to win. First, the Bush campaign began to accuse Gore of seeking to "steal" the election. Second, the Republicans launched a vitriolic campaign to discredit the Florida Supreme Court when it delivered a ruling unfavorable to the Bush campaign. Bush's Florida manager, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, called the court's ruling in favor of hand counts "unacceptable," and John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, called the judges "partisan hacks," while House majority whip Tom DeLay, speaking the language of war, announced, "This will not stand." Third, Republican Congressional staffers and Bush operatives, led by New York Congressman John Sweeney, mounted the riot in the Miami-Dade County building to stop a recount that looked as if it would favor Gore; the recount did, in fact, stop. Fourth, in an act of remarkable effrontery to democracy, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature organized itself to choose a slate of electors for Bush, whatever Florida courts might say. Fifth, DeLay and others in Congress began to threaten that if Florida did not go the way they liked, Congress might take the matter into its own hands. These latter two steps were the substance of the Republican warning that if the Supreme Court didn't settle the matter, a constitutional crisis would follow. The Republican message, in other words, was that if they were not allowed to win, there would be a constitutional crisis because they would produce one.
While all this was going on, the promises of bipartisanship that had been such a prominent feature of the Bush campaign were melting away. Such acts as the Florida legislature's decision to substitute its will for the will of the voters and the baseless charge that Gore's legal maneuvering constituted theft of the election hardly showed a bipartisan spirit. In the meantime, the Republicans in the Senate, which is divided 50/50 with the Democrats, refused any institutional power-sharing arrangement and elected some of their most conservative members as leaders. DeLay said that with the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government they would "set the agenda," and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas announced, "I have been waiting all my life for a Republican President and a Republican Congress." Something of what this resolve meant on the practical level was revealed in a number of news stories. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Republican hard right was gearing up to staff the White House and the courts with its members. "Most people are focusing on fumigating the Justice Department," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Meanwhile, the tide of money on which Bush floated to the White House was rising to the rafters in Republican Washington. For instance, the contest within the Republican Party for the chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee is, in the words of Lizette Alvarez of the New York Times, between Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, "who is more closely allied to the Baby Bells," and Michael Oxley of Ohio, who is allied "to the long distance carriers." The Wall Street Journal notes that "a veritable bidding war erupted last year, as several candidates for chairmanships...raised millions of dollars for GOP congressional candidates." Now Hastert, fearful of cutting short the bidding war, has, according to legislators, been staying "'mum' on how chairmanships will be decided."
It is true that the extreme actions of the Republicans during the postelection crisis did not find much active support among the people (a majority of whom consistently favored the Florida recount), just as the party's impeachment effort a year ago failed to find such support. As we can now see, however, it is a mistake to suppose that political extremism is dangerous only if backed by popular fervor. The Republicans' impeachment campaign failed. But their postelection campaign succeeded. The Republicans, though enjoying the slenderest of legislative margins, will, as DeLay triumphantly pointed out, be in charge of the presidency and both houses of Congress. To this, in view of the recent ruling, it's tempting to add the judiciary. Popular support is the currency of democracy, but it is not the only currency. History shows that militant, highly organized, tightly disciplined parties can have their way even in the midst of apathy--or, perhaps, especially in the midst of apathy. Power, as the founders of this country well knew, is a mighty temptation. Money is another. Put the two together, and you have a force to reckon with.