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Recount: A Nightmare Revisited | The Nation

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Recount: A Nightmare Revisited

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About the Author

Adam Howard
Adam Howard is the former Assistant Web Editor of The Nation and currently the News Editor of The Grio.

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With the revelation last night/this morning that veteran Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd(CT) and Byron Dorgan (ND) are not seeking re-electionthis year, the mainstream press is going wild with speculation that theseretirements herald doom for the Democrats in this year's midtermelections. This is despite that fact that they are almost a year awayand that six, count 'em (Bunning, Brownback, LeMieux, Bond,Gregg, and Voinovich) six, GOP senators are retiring this year as well asseveral other Republicans in the House.Still, a narrative is forming (and we all know how powerful politicalnarratives can be) and if Obama and the Democrats don'tget in front of this soon it could become a self-fulfillingprophesy--the pundits have decided it's 1994 all over again.

For those youngsters out there who may not remember, in November of '94Congressional approval was at an all-time low and President Clinton's approval numbers weremired in the low 40s after his failure to pass healthcare reform. The result was a Republican landslide that dominated Congress until 2006. But2010 can be different and in some ways it already is. The public clearlyhas a lot more good will in the bank for Obama, he remains close to orat 50 percent approval in most public opinion polls--despite roughly six months of consistently bad press. Healthcare reform will likely be passed by the end of this month, albeit a comprised bill, but a political and strategic victory nonetheless. In addition if the Democrats get aggressive on immigration, education and climate change (which are all on the legislative agenda for this year) and continue to rack up victories it'll be easier to contrast themselves with "TheParty of No". Naturally there needs to be significant movement on jobstoo by the White House and Democrats in Congress, my hunch is that 10percent number hovers like a shadow over anything the party in powerdoes.

True, losing Dorgan (as JohnNichols writes) is a significant blow. He was a strong progressivein an undeniably right-leaning state and it will be exceedingly difficultfor any other Democrat to replace him. ChrisDodd, on the other hand, despite having many virtues, was totally tainted by scandal(even Michael Moore went after him in Capitalism: A LoveStory) and was likely to lose his re-election campaign. Hisdeparture, while perhaps bittersweet, clears theway for Connecticut's popular Democratic attorney general, RichardBlumenthal, to capture his seat. It seems unlikely to me that aprogressive state like Connecticut would send a Republican to representtheir state alongside nominal Independent Joe Lieberman.

 

Permit me to borrow one our president's most famous turns ofphrase--Carrie Prejean's story could "only happen in America." Most ofus who don't consume a daily diet of shows like Access Hollywoodand TMZ would normally not have heard of Miss Prejean, but now that she'sbecome a regular on Fox News, an author and poster child for "Palinized" conservative women everywhere--she's almost unavoidable. Most recently she appeared on Larry King Live, where she repeatedly snapped at the septuagenarian host for being "inappropriate."

 

 

For the uninitiated, a quick recap:

 

 

Carrie Prejean was competing the Donald Trump-funded Miss USA pageant, and was representing California. Apparently she was well ahead in points when she reached the question-and-answer segment. Openly gay blogger Perez Hilton, serving as a judge, asked her about her position on same-sex marriage. To which she replied (emphasis mine):

 

HBO's Recount will make you angry, it will infuriate you, and it may even cause you nightmares--which is precisely why it should be seen.

The docudrama covers, in excruciating detail, the thirty-six days Al Gore and George W. Bush battled over Florida's electoral votes and by extension the presidency in 2000. It's striking how this event has come to represent ancient history for so many Americans, as if we all took Antonin Scalia's "get over it" remark to heart and did indeed let our outrage over the Supreme Court's pro-Bush ruling slip from our consciousness. Hopefully, this film, airing on HBO through July, will remind progressives of the injustice and tragedy that took place that election year, because it could still occur again. The nation's voting machines are still not up to snuff, and in the case of a close vote on election night there's no reason to think the networks won't jump the gun and make the wrong calls all over again.

It's miraculous that a film about an event from eight years ago, which was covered exhaustively and whose result is so well known, manages to be so consistently entertaining. Credit must go to Recount's script, which manages to cover all of the bases without sacrificing wit and realism, and its acclaimed cast, who bring to life several infamous moments. Laura Dern gives a terrific, appropriately over-the-top and oddly sympathetic portrayal of Katherine Harris that will make your skin crawl (in one creepy scene she compares herself to Queen Esther sacrificing herself for the Jews).

For the most part Harris and her Republican cohorts are the villains of the piece, with the Democrats, led by Kevin Spacey as Ron Klain, the earnest but overmatched heroes. At times the film feels like a depressing, albeit honest, laundry list of the major strategic blunders made by the Democrats. Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt as aloof and näive) wants to be diplomatic and negotiate with the Republicans. Meanwhile, James Baker (played with mustache-twirling menace by the brilliant Tom Wilkinson) wants to and succeeds in politicizing the recount from the start. However, the film does lay much of the blame for what transpired on Harris, Baker and the GOP team, who managed to stop or slow down the vote count almost every step of the way. Later, we are forced to relive the fluctuations in the vote count, the revelation that thousands of African-Americans were illegally turned away from the polls and, of course, the endless discussion of dimpled and hanging chads. Some have quibbled with the portrayal of Christopher as an effete wimp, and the film should certainly not be viewed as a documentary or the definitive interpretation of the events that unfolded that winter.

Still, several intriguing and pivotal moments are recreated quite well in the film, including Joe Lieberman's disastrous decision to advocate on behalf of counting unsigned military ballots, which helped solidify Bush's lead and his position in the recount fight. Gore and Bush mostly appear as voices over the telephone, but Gore's concession retraction is a highlight (Bush's petulant whine that "my little brother assures me I've won" is very amusing). As these events unfold, a viewer feels a deep sadness, but also an anger because the truth is as clear now as it was then: thousands of votes were not counted, thousands more were illegally purged from the rolls, while the Supreme Court looked the other way and handed the election to George W. Bush.

At one point a frustrated Klain says, "We're in the middle of a recount and the votes aren't being recounted and nobody seems to care!" With 2008 hindsight, we are right there with him. But at the time many Democrats and progressives were like the film's Warren Christopher character. We had faith that the proceedings would play out fairly, while Baker and his team, far more savvy, played a "street fight" to win.

Prior to the final vote ratification, even The Nation suggested,"If Bush is elected, he will be forever known as the President who came in second with voters, then was rescued by the Electoral College. That lame status should inhibit--if not immobilize--any ability to make radical changes." We couldn't have been more wrong.

If Recount has a significant flaw, it's that it doesn't make it clear that we are not necessarily better off now in terms of election reform then we were back in 2000. Tim Griffin, who served on Bush's Florida recount team (and later was picked by Karl Rove to serve as a US attorney), has been hired to run the RNC's Obama opposition research team. Impoverished communities still have too few voting machines, and those in place are still unreliable and flawed. Recount makes no call for electoral reform. So at best we can hope that enough people have learned from 2000 and 2004 how important a fair and free election really is.

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