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The election results reveal what may be an "emerging progressive majority."
With No Decision 2000 a face-off of spins--moralistic outrage for the Republicans (don't steal our election) versus lofty principle for the Democrats (every vote should count)--the Bush gang has had the edge in passion and unity. In the postcertification phase, the Republicans and their conservative movement pals were impressively maintaining a lockstep message, while the Democrats were trying hard to mount a stand-by-our-man front. House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle trotted to Tallahassee to demonstrate their support for Gore, but it was a bit late in the game. Other high-profile Democrats--Senators John Kerry and Bob Kerrey, Representative Jerrold Nadler--hit the Sunshine State and the talk shows to help out. And on Capitol Hill, most Democrats--angered by Republican rhetoric and majority whip Tom DeLay's schemings--were egging Gore on. As a senior Democratic House staffer quipped, "DeLay has rallied the Democrats better than Al Gore could."
But questions hovered: How long would the Democrats hang tough? And would they play tough? "Most Democrats are going to wait and see how the court contests go and see what happens with the Supreme Court before they pull out," says one chief of staff for a Democratic senator. But unlike Bush, Gore had to deal with cracks within his bloc. Senator Bob Torricelli remarked that the Florida certification was "the beginning of the end." Senator Byron Dorgan indicated that time was short for Gore: "This is a search for an accurate count, but it cannot be an endless count." Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich counseled retreat: "The country needs closure." Representative Bud Cramer said, "The time has come for this to come to a close." And even though Gore had much of his party on his side, the Democratic effort did not match the fervor of the GOP postcampaign endeavor--and not merely because the Democrats did not send mobs into county buildings in Florida. The remarks of Gephardt and Daschle were temperate, almost defensive, as they pointed out that they were backing the abstract principle of counting all votes. They expressed little emotion regarding the GOP attempt to block the vote-counting process so crucial for Gore. From the Democratic perspective, the election was being hijacked by the Republicans, yet, for the most part, the alarm wasn't raised.
A few Democrats did sound off. James Clyburn, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said, "We know what it is to have an election stolen from us." He warned that Democrats who wimp out during the postelection combat would lose support among black voters. Nadler, reacting to the GOP-led protests that perhaps precipitated the shutdown of the Miami-Dade recount, complained about the "whiff of fascism." But such fightin' words were not part of the Gore/Democratic talking points.
This was the Democratic plan: Stay calm. "Our message is patience," said an aide to the House Democratic leadership. "We have to embody reasonableness. We feel we have votes and the law on our side, and that the Republican tactics and vehemence will backfire. People may mistake that as a message of not caring, of not being passionate. But we believe this can work." In fact, early on in the postelection battle, Gore decided not to rev up supporters. His campaign discouraged Jesse Jackson, who staged a protest in Florida and raised questions about allegations of racial intimidation on Election Day. "Gore told Jackson to get out of the state, and he told labor not to organize," says one Jackson associate. "He cooled Democrats out, just when Bush and his people were going into overdrive. Gore thought he had the votes. This was a classic case of Gore not believing in politics." It may have been smart to de-Jessify the dispute, since Jackson brings his own baggage to headlines. But the Gore-Lieberman camp kept its distance from the charges of racial intimidation--which, though unproven, were of intense concern to many of Gore's most ardent supporters.
For better or worse, Gore mostly stuck to a legal strategy--and eschewed political mobilization, outrage and crusading rhetoric, even as polls and a few Democratic pols turned against him. As one Democratic Senate aide said wistfully, "It's always been our problem. We Democrats have trouble going for the jugular. We always try to sound reasonable. Reason may not be enough this time."
Here's the Bush idea of electoral reform: Cancel the election. The Florida legislature's move to choose the state's electors and declare George W. Bush the next President is only the latest of Bush's attempts to short-circuit electoral due process, raising the stakes in the Florida recount far beyond the interests and limitations of Al Gore. Bush's premature declaration of victory, the bare-knuckle tactics employed by his camp through the initial recount and now the legislature's attempt to pre-empt voters altogether have laid down a chilling marker: Bush is trying unilaterally to make his presidency a fact, rendering irrelevant both the legal system and a credible counting of Florida's votes.
To keep those voters' legally cast ballots from being counted, Bush, James Baker and Dick Cheney orchestrated a Big Lie campaign at an extraordinary level. New York Governor George Pataki insisted, "We've now had a count, a recount, a recount of the recount." In fact, at least 10,000 Miami-Dade ballots recorded no presidential vote, suggesting they were never counted properly in the first place. According to the New York Times, antiquated and error-prone Votomatic machines prevalent in the same county's black precincts may have cost Gore as many as 7,000 votes. Bob Dole hammered away at Gore for "disenfranchising" the military. The substance of those allegations vanished so quickly that the Bush campaign withdrew its lawsuit. Bush himself denounced Florida's hand counts, saying they were able to produce "no fair or accurate result." In fact, as US District Judge Donald Middlebrooks pointedly noted in rejecting Bush's case, Florida's hand-recount procedures are studiously "neutral," and Bush had as much right to request hand counts or to challenge certification as Gore. Hand recounts are routine in virtually every election jurisdiction in the country.
Curiously, the Republicans and Democrats seem to share the same central premise, which is that if enough votes get counted Gore will win--hence a GOP strategy based on impeding recounts at any cost. This strategy found near-perfect expression in that pre-Thanksgiving hecklers' veto of the Miami-Dade recount by a screaming crowd of Republican Congressional staffers flown in for the occasion. With thousands of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach votes still to be counted in Gore's post-certification contests, the legislature is now going to the next logical step: Why have an election at all when you can have a coronation?
To back up his effort to crown himself over the heads of Florida's voters, Bush is playing one of the hoariest cards in the right-wing deck: resentment of the judiciary. When Bush, in his "I'm in charge here" speech, denounced the Florida Supreme Court for "rewriting the law," he knowingly stirred regional and racist resentment. His lawyers, led by Ken Starr crony Ted Olson, continued on the same tack with the US Supreme Court, in their brief charging the Florida high court with "judicial legislation" for extending the state's certification deadline in a routine bit of legal interpretation. As political strategy, this effort to delegitimize the judiciary harks back to the impeach earl warren bumper stickers of 1960s segregationists and the Reagan-era attacks on civil-libertarian state judges like California's Rose Bird. As legal theory, Bush's Supreme Court argument has even more profound implications than the election itself. As Laurence Tribe and Gore's legal team correctly noted in their reply, Bush "would undermine the authority of the judiciary to decide the meaning of law."
An election is supposed to represent the direct line connecting people to power. The Bush strategy of impeding the vote counting does the opposite, drawing into the whirlwind every branch and level of government; each new escalation pulls the election's outcome a step further from the voters. The conventional wisdom of the moment is that Gore should give up for the sake of closure, and the Democrats should return to fight another day. But the legitimacy of votes and the legitimacy of the judiciary in protecting voters' rights are principles too fundamental to abandon without the most exhaustive political and legal battle. Whatever you think of Al Gore, this is terrain that is essential to fight for to the bitter end. Settling for less is a false closure not worth contemplating.
Three days before the election, I took part in a television panel with former White House flack Joe Lockhart, who was doing his best to hold up his end of the tattered Gore-Lieberman banner. When the show was over, I asked him what he really thought and he said, "I'm pinning everything on the Electoral College." It now takes an effort of memory to recall, but this was what all the Democratic elite were saying that week. So the sudden moral emphasis on the popular vote is slightly unseemly, especially in view of the fact that the vote hasn't been counted yet.
Was it only a few short weeks ago that I turned on the TV in my hotel room to hear conservative commentator Tucker Carlson explain to Don Imus that Gore would win the Floridian chadfight because Republicans were too nice, polite, modest and fair to get down and dirty like the Democrats? That was before a small army of rowdy Republicans descended on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and successfully intimidated election officials while turning themselves into a media spectacle halfway between a fraternity brawl and an ancient Roman mob. Like the false announcement of a Bush victory on election night--courtesy, we now know, of a Fox TV reporter who is a cousin of George W. Bush--the demonstrators helped produce the mistaken but widespread impression that Bush had won an election that Gore was trying to undo, when in fact the election, as I write, is still undecided. According to the Wall Street Journal and other papers, the demonstrators, originally portrayed as John Q. Publics following their hearts to Florida, are GOP operatives and Congressional staffers financed by the Bush campaign, which is putting them up in Hilton hotels and entertained them on Thanksgiving with turkey and a performance by Wayne Newton.
Al Gore's position is that there should be an accurate count of the Florida vote--the fraudulent nature of which becomes daily more obvious. What's wrong with that? Outrageous, say the Republicans; boring, say the media, which from the start urged "closure," like a prosecutor urging a quick lethal injection so that grieving survivors can start "the healing process." Flip a coin, advised Ralph Nader, fliply.
And what of Nader? Campaigners have been quick to put a brave face on his unimpressive 2.7 percent--unmentioned now is the magic 5 percent that would bring the Greens federal funds and that they themselves had made a central rationale for a Nader vote. "We accomplished what we set out to do," Nader campaign manager Theresa Amato told me. "We helped the Greens, we raised issues, we got new people into the political process. The Greens are now the leading third party, the only viable third party. I'm positive, I'm upbeat, I'm not depressed in any way." Longtime Green activist and former member of the town council of Princeton, New Jersey, Carl Mayer was even cheerier, telling me that Nader had mobilized 150,000 volunteers and 50,000 donors and sparked the formation of some 500 local Green organizations and 900 campus groups, and crediting him with "changing the tenor of the whole race" by pushing Gore to take populist stands against the drug and oil industries. Mayer even argued that it was because of Nader that President Clinton declared wilderness areas national monuments in several Western states and that the FDA approved RU-486. Unlike virtually every other Nader supporter in America, Mayer not only accepted the mainstream analysis that Nader votes had cost Gore the election (assuming Bush wins), but said it didn't bother him a bit.
One hesitates to inject a discouraging word, but 2.7 percent of the vote is not a lot. It puts him in the company of conscience candidates like Barry Commoner, but behind most major third-party challengers in recent memory. Even John Anderson--who?--and his National Union Party--what?--eked out 6.6 percent in 1980. Sure, you can spin these gloomy stats--Nader got more votes than any progressive third-party candidate since 1948! Nader would have gotten lots more votes but for the closeness of the Bush-Gore contest, which kept Dems in the fold! Third-party runs aren't about votes, they're about changing the discourse! But when I think about how many furious letters and e-mails I got for writing skeptically in this space about the possibility of a meaningful third party, especially a progressive one, I have to say events have borne me out. I said that in the end most voters would stick with the two parties because the differences that seem small to Naderites are concrete and significant to them, because the two-party system is the way civic favors and services are distributed and because people understand that the winner-take-all system insures that a left-leaning third party throws elections to the Republicans--as the Republicans understood when they ran Nader's attacks on Gore as ads for Bush.
Commentators will be analyzing the Nader vote for months, and no doubt the campaign could have done some things better or not at all: the invisible and tokenistic vice presidential candidacy of Winona LaDuke, the waffling over whether to go for votes in toss-up states, the attacks on "frightened liberals." But even a perfect campaign would run up against the structural obstacles that have rendered marginal every modern attempt to build a strong and lasting third-party alternative to the two- party "duopoly."
Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts--the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats--any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote--only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush--means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs--feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds--Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts--his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc. In an interesting post-mortem on the Newsforchange website, Micah Sifry argues that the Greens may be too far left for the actually existing electorate and that the future lies in the "radical middle," from which sprang Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. In other words, for leftists to achieve even the momentary electoral prominence of the now-moribund Reform Party, they have to be more, well, conservative.
Whoever wins the legal battles over the election, and with them the presidency, recent events will cast a long shadow over American political life in the years ahead. For the first week and a half, the behavior of the two parties did not differ much. Both were playing legal hardball while pretending to act on a basis of high principle. Principles are general rules that are supposed to guide conduct in each case as it arises. Vice President Al Gore and Governor George Bush were doing it the other way around: Their conduct in each case was guiding their choice of principles. Often, this comically required throwing out yesterday's principle in favor of its opposite today. For instance, not twenty-four hours after Bush's strategist-in-chief, former Secretary of State James Baker, had delivered a public sermon on the need to avoid legal action in order to reach "closure" in the election, he was filing a federal case to overturn Florida's election laws. Gore meanwhile was lecturing the country on the importance of counting every vote while fighting to exclude absentee ballots, known to favor Bush. Quite missing on either side was any instance of action taken against self-interest in the name of principle, which is to say any principled act. None of this, however, was perhaps very surprising. The candidates were merely behaving the way lawyers always do in courtrooms. Each was pressing his side's interest to the utmost in the hope of influencing the decisions of the judges.
The tone abruptly changed on the Republican side with the decision by the Florida Supreme Court to permit the recounts of counties that had been sought by Gore. For the first time since election night, the GOP was faced with the prospect of losing the election. Its response was to make an incendiary accusation: that Gore was engaged in a "theft" of the election, as the House majority whip, the impeachment zealot Tom DeLay, put it. The charge was accompanied by a campaign to delegitimize the Florida Supreme Court. In a remarkable statement of defiance, Baker declared the Florida decision "unacceptable," and Bush charged that what the court had done was to "usurp" the powers of the Florida legislature and executive.
Of course, if Gore had been stealing the election, it would have been the obligation of the Bush campaign as well as any other responsible person, Republican, Democrat or other, to point this out and vigorously protest it. In fact, the charge was baseless. The point is not that the particulars of the Republican allegations--that the Florida court had overreached its authority, that Democratic officials were changing the rules for counting votes midstream, that the Gore campaign was demanding multiple recounts--were false (some had merit, some did not--just as some of the Gore campaign's charges against the Bush campaign's legal maneuvering had merit and some did not); it was that even if all the charges were true they did not come anywhere near to justifying the sensational conclusion that Gore was "stealing" an election. To steal an election, after all, would be a crime. If the accusation were true, Gore should not only lose the election; he should be thrown in jail. The fact that a false and defamatory charge of this magnitude--a big lie, if there ever was one--was made by the campaign of a man who may soon be President itself severely damages the political system. For to the extent that people believe it, they must believe that American democracy is a sham, and the American political system is exactly as strong as the support it gets from the American people, and no more.
The campaign of accusation and vilification, moreover, had an evident purpose: to justify extraordinary recourses contemplated by the Bush campaign. One was the step of inviting the Republican-dominated Florida state legislature to ignore the election result and itself appoint electors. Baker solicited this action in the press conference in which he called the Florida decision unacceptable. Another was a challenge to the results by Congress. News reports suddenly appeared that DeLay was "studying" this option. Either option would have guaranteed a full-scale constitutional crisis. In short, by charging that Gore was stealing the election, the Republicans had laid the ground for the eruption of a self-created political Vesuvius in the event that the recounts placed Gore in the lead.
Of course, things didn't work out that way. Gore did not catch up, and Vesuvius stayed quiet. It is important to reflect on how this happened. The answer is that Miami-Dade County, where the beginnings of a recount had strongly suggested that its completion would give Gore the lead in Florida, abruptly called it off. On the morning of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the board of canvassers decided that in the interest of time it would count only those ballots that had gone uncounted by the voting machines. In the afternoon, they decided to cancel even that smaller recount. It was the decisive moment. In all likelihood, it cost Gore the certification and, perhaps, the election. In the interval between the decision to do a partial recount and the decision to cancel it, there was a minor Republican riot inside and outside the county building. When the canvassing board moved to a new room that made observation more difficult, GOP Representative John Sweeney of New York ordered, "Shut it down!" and, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who witnessed the scene, "semi-spontaneous combustion took over." Republican observers of the election pounded on doors and walls. Democratic observers trying to give interviews to the press were shouted down. Television cameramen were punched. A Democratic counter falsely accused of stealing a ballot had to be given police protection. A canvasser told Bill Redeker of ABC News right after the demonstrations that he had been "convinced that what we were doing was perceived as not being fair and open." Approached by reporters, the demonstrators strangely would not give their names. We now know that many of them were Republican House staffers, organized by the very Tom DeLay who had said the election was being stolen. Others were operatives of the Bush campaign. It was not Vesuvius; it was a taste of lava from a small crack that had been opened in the volcano. But it may have been enough to deny Gore the White House. Gigot commented, "If it is possible to have a bourgeois riot, it happened here Wednesday. And it could end up saving the presidency for George W. Bush." It is, indeed, possible to have a bourgeois riot. Without suggesting any historical equivalence, let us recall that Mussolini, Hitler and supporters of Pinochet, among others, managed to do it.
Intimidation was in the air. That George Bush--he who was going to stop the "bickering in Washington" but has waged political war in Florida--countenanced the result is especially discouraging. It dims to the vanishing point any hope that if elected he would be willing or able to rein in the firebrands of his party. Meanwhile, Bush's announcement that he will begin a transition with private funds is merely the same medicine in more palatable form. The message is unchanged: We are entitled to rule; give us what we want--or else. The riot in the county building was a sample of what the Republicans had in mind. The threats to precipitate a constitutional crisis were others. For now, the Republicans have been placated. Bush won his certification, and has crowned himself President-elect. But the threat has not been withdrawn and will probably be carried out if the legal cases turn in Gore's favor. Vesuvius has not been dismantled. It is being held in reserve for further use in the unfolding election crisis, or thereafter.
(Lyrics found on a table inside a state building
in Miami-Dade County)
I'm counting my heart out for you.
The votes I am finding are few.
We hear the mob right in the hallway heat up,
They're talking of the chads that we might eat up.
I hope this ends before we all get beat up.
I'm looking for voters for you--
Some blacks or a wandering Jew.
There aren't enough new hanging chads to suit me.
I hope the Cubans don't show up to shoot me.
There doesn't seem much I can do,
Still, I'm counting my heart out for you.
Click here for Eric Alterman's latest dispatch on Florida.
A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism.
It took George W. Bush a matter of days--if not hours--to prove that he doesn't believe his own different-kind-of-Republican rhetoric and that he is leading a squad as loaded with partisan hacks as the other team. He doesn't trust the people--at least, the people of the recount counties who want to make sure every chad counts. (The Bush-league spin that manual recounts are less accurate than Ouija boards was demolished by computer scientists and voting-machine experts, who maintain that well-managed hand counts are without question more accurate than machine feeds.)
Bush also shows his promise to be a unifier, not a divider, to be counterfeit. Relying on the impression created by the networks' false projection of him as the victor--a call first made by his cousin the vote projector at Fox News--Bush and his lieutenants portray every move that works against them in Florida as part of a conspiracy to "steal" the election from the rightful winner. This is the way to foster unity and healing? The Bush camp then played an ugly card by accusing Democrats, who were following the traditional practice of carefully vetting overseas absentee ballots, of seeking to disfranchise the men and women of the armed forces. What of the men and women who serve as firefighters, inner-city teachers and ER nurses in the disputed counties--did the Republicans care about registering their votes?
Al Gore was pegged as the candidate who would say or do anything to win, but clearly Bush is willing to do whatever it takes to score in Florida. Yes, the Democrats assaulted Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, but imagine the fury of Republican spinmeisters if a Democratic state official tied to the Gore campaign had voided a Bush-requested recount.
Given the closeness of the election and the rampant problems with vote-counting in Florida and elsewhere, neither Bush nor Gore can be a clear winner. A system of counting 100 million votes cannot be expected to be accurate to within 0.001 percent. But beware the drawers of lessons, those voices from on high who pronounce this split decision a mandate for centrism. Both candidates ran toward the center, and neither achieved a majority. (If one combines the Ralph Nader and Al Gore vote, there's a 52 percent center-left majority; but given the differences between Goreism and Naderism, could that be a workable majority?) Moreover, campaign centrism again failed to inspire most Americans. Nonvoters outnumbered Gore or Bush voters. Under such circumstances, a pundit-approved mandate would be a figment of the political class's imagination. With roughly half of Americans choosing not to choose, the winner can claim only slightly less than one-quarter support. Had Bush or Gore won by 5 percentage points, he still wouldn't have a popular mandate.
The no-decision election of 2000 may result in sorely needed electoral reforms. But will it convince the next President and the pols to rethink the notion that the center is all? Doubtful: The sad fact is that even more than in previous years, the winner of Campaign 2000 will no doubt be fixated on his re-election as the way to legitimize his very iffy win--and re-election mania breeds caution. After this contest, it's likely that the permanent campaign will become even more permanent. The election of 2000 will very possibly not be settled until 2004.
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