George W. Bush’s premature declaration Sunday night laid down a chilling marker: Bush is trying to unilaterally make his presidency a fact, rendering irrelevant both the legal system and a credible counting of Florida’s voters. Whatever you think of Al Gore, this bare-knuckle usurpation of political due process over the last several days has raised the stakes far beyond the interests and limitations of the Democratic presidential candidate.
Until Florida’s high court last week unanimously sent Secretary of State Harris packing, the long recount amounted to a get-out-the-popcorn legal joust between contending mediocrities. The attack-dog denunciation of Florida’s justices by Bush and James Baker, and their tactics since, have changed all that. Bush is out to win the election not through politics and law but through a democracy-subverting concatenation of through-the-looking-glass logic, conspiracy theories and outright bullying. Bush’s singular goal: to keep legally cast ballots–whether fully or partially punched–from being counted. Curiously, the Republicans and Democrats actually 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 and intimidating recounts at any cost.
This strategy found its perfect expression in the pre-Thanksgiving blitz on Miami-Dade’s elections board by a transparently orchestrated mob shipped in and paid for by Republican PR flaks. The goal of this “demonstration” was to shut down the ongoing recount; the election board’s open meeting was shouted into chaos, an official carrying a demonstration ballot in his pocket was assaulted and credible reports of death threats were received by police, according to news accounts. The elections board, already overwhelmed by a daunting task, understandably if not bravely acquiesced and bailed out of the recount, as one board member admitted the next day. Many of the same demonstrators later showed up in Broward County, as CNN noted.
As if shouting down a court-approved recount weren’t enough, the Bush camp now proposes abandoning that tired game of counting presidential votes altogether, with Florida’s Republican state legislature threatening to choose the state’s electors over the heads of the voting public if Gore persists in legally challenging the outcome. The Bush camp’s idea of electoral reform is to cancel the election.
The fury of Republicans is unfeigned, but it makes sense only because they have bought wholesale into a series of fundamental delusions propagated by the Bush camp: lies about the legal basis of the recount, about the role of courts in American life, about absentee ballots, which get only occasional reality-testing in the media. Start with the hand recounts, which every hour on the hour Bush and his partisans insist are “selective” and “unfair,” a special right conferred upon whiny Democrats by Florida’s Supreme Court. This is simply an inversion of reality: As US District Judge Thomas Middlebrooks pointedly noted in rejecting Bush’s case last week, Florida’s hand-recount procedures are studiously “neutral,” and Bush had as much right to request hand counts or challenge certification as Gore. Same thing with those infamous military ballots: On Friday the GOP trotted out Bob Dole to a rally demanding that undated overseas ballots be counted, when days earlier Joe Lieberman had called for the same thing, and when Palm Beach election officials were turning up only a fraction of the discarded military ballots claimed by the GOP. There was so little basis to the claim of widespread military disfranchisement that by Saturday night Bush’s lawyers had withdrawn his suit.
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Alongside those lies, Bush, Baker and company have turned to the hoariest standby of resentment politics: When in trouble, blame the courts. Florida, let it not be forgotten, is the South, and in the South, when Bush denounces “overreaching” jurists and judges “rewriting the law” from the bench he knowingly stirs the bitter pot of regional and racist resentment. Jesse Jackson, far from overreaching, was right to connect the stakes in Florida’s vote-count to Selma and Freedom Summer: Bush’s strategy of blocking the count and deriding the courts traces its lineage directly back to the era when active supression of votes–African-American votes–was the political routine for Southern conservatives and many Northern ward heelers alike.
It will be a long and tortuous week until the Supreme Court hears Bush’s appeal. With the Court’s agreement to take the case, it is clear that at least four Justices want to assert some claim over the most contentious election in memory. But the Court will well tread through this case like a constitutional high-wire act, with the Justices’ own interests balanced none too securely. Few figures in the Court’s history have played politics as readily as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a fact many scholars neglected when they predicted the Court would leave the election to Florida. Rehnquist and the Court’s most conservative faction–historically rooted in the same resentment of “overreaching” judicial protection of democratic and civil libertarian reforms so casually and cynically invoked by Bush–know their legacy rides on the outcome of this recount. Yet for Rehnquist and the other conservative Justices to countermand Florida’s Supreme Court and discard the hand counts–or to impose some as-yet-unforseen deus ex machina–would violate every principle of devolution and federalism they have championed.
An election is supposed to represent the direct line connecting people to power. The Bush strategy of impeding the counting of votes does the precise opposite, drawing into the whirlwind every branch of government; each new escalation pulls the election’s outcome a step further from the voters. Obsessed with historic vindication, Bush and Baker have turned into prime practitioners of what historian Richard Hoftstadter called “the paranoid style”; they have transformed the Bush-Gore rivalry into a far more basic contest, over whether a President is chosen by an election–or by an angry clique’s suppression of votes by any means necessary. Bush’s ruthless and deceitful effort to torpedo the Florida vote count is now itself an issue which should engage the energy, attention and activism of anyone who cares about American democracy.