The British press has taken to referring to the passing decade as “the Noughties” has made quite a big deal of trying to identify the political, economic and cultural trends of period from 2000 to 2009.
It is an amusing pastime that has some value, but only if we’re focused on identifying the root cause of what made the Noughties such a miserable decade for the republic.
If we are serious about the task, there is not much mystery.
The original sin of the good-riddance decade came in December of 2000, when the United States Supreme Court intervened to stop a complete recount of the votes in Florida and then declared George Bush to be the president.
This extreme judicial activism was not merely a devastating assault on American democracy. It set in motion the Bush presidency, and with it the pathologies that the Bush-Cheney administration imposed on the country in the form of unnecessary wars, failed economic policies, assaults on civil liberties and crudely divisive and hyper-partisan governance.
Bush, Dick Cheney and aides are surely to blame for much of what ailed America during the 2000s, and for what will ail America for decades to come.
But it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s unprecedented meddling in the presidential election process – an intervention that would have horrified the founders of a republic that was supposed to enjoy a separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers – made the Bush-Cheney interregnum possible.
Bush, it must be remembered, did not win the popular vote nationally.
In fact, the American electorate favored Democrat Al Gore over Republican Bush by more than 540,000 votes.
Of course, because the United States has a convoluted electoral system that does not award the presidency to the candidate who wins the most votes, the contest came down to a fight between the Bush and Gore camps for Florida’s decisive 25 Electoral College votes.
Florida ran a confusing and disorderly election on November 7, 2000, and then conducted a ridiculous review of the close result that followed no standards except those imposed by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush campaign co-chair.
When the Florida Supreme Court finally ordered a full and consistent recount of all 6.1 million ballots cast by the state’s voters, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the process and then declared Bush the winner of Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency.
The problem with this unprecedented move by a conflicted high court was that more Floridians went to the polls with the intention of electing Gore than Bush.
This is not some radical notion, not some conspiracy theory.
It is the reality that was evident to scholars of voting behavior from the start.
As University of California at Irvine political scientist Anthony Salvanto, who conducted some of the first and most exhaustive examinations of contested ballots, noted: “There’s a pretty clear pattern from these ballots. Most of these people went to the polls to vote for Al Gore.”
Salvanto was not an outlier.
Even the media consortium that tried — after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ensuing spike in presidential approval ratings — to suggest a scenario under which Bush might have won produced more scenarios under which Gore would have won.
Media outlets that looked beyond the partisan spin to the reality of what the ballots revealed acknowledges as much.
As The Associated Press noted, “Under any standard that tabulated all disputed ballots statewide, however, Gore erased Bush’s advantage and emerged with a tiny lead that ranged from 42 to 171 votes.”
The Washington Post was even more blunt, stating that, “If there had been some way last fall to recount every vote — undervotes and overvotes alike, in all 67 Florida counties — former vice president Al Gore would be the White House.”
The Palm Beach Post, which conducted its own review of the ballots and also participated in a review by a consortium of media outlets, concluded: “Uncounted ballots and voter confusion cost Gore the election.”
Actually, that’s not quite right.
The Supreme Court’s blocking of the full and consistent recount that could have sorted through the confusion cost Al Gore an election. But the consequences were far greater for the republic, which lost a decade of its promise and possibility to the excesses and abuses of George Bush’s illegitimate presidency.
John Nichols is the author of a critically-acclaimed study of the political and legal battles surrounding the 2000 recount fight in Florida: Jews for Buchanan (The New Press). Of it, Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Nichols, an experienced political observer who writes for the Nation, assembles an impressively wide array of little-known information about the 2000 election in Florida: how TV network cutbacks left them short of news resources and vulnerable to spin and bad-faith attacks; how several counties with optical-scan equipment capable of catching mismarked ballots had high error rates because officials disabled the function to save money; how the “butterfly ballot” cost Gore over 8,500 votes, and a rush to judgment overlooked the clear precedent of a court-ordered revote in the 1968 presidential election; how a Reconstruction-era law disenfranchising felons cost Gore roughly 85,000 votes, and how Bush’s and Katherine Harris’s offices combined to purge the votes of thousands of supposed “ex-felons,” including one county election supervisor; how blacks, with 11% of eligible voters, constituted 44% of those “scrubbed” from voter rolls and 54% of rejected ballots; how Republicans quietly challenged and disqualified hundreds of overseas Gore votes; and many other examples. Nichols combines a journalistic, point-by-point style with engaging, conversational, sometimes chilling and sometimes humorous anecdotes: Pat Buchanan, for instance, jokes about how he prayed to God not to let his epitaph read “The Man Who Cost George W. Bush the Presidency,” and wholeheartedly agrees that the butterfly ballot helped save him from this particular ignominy. This volume will leave little doubt in the minds of many that Gore was robbed. But Nichols doesn’t dryly build a case; he tells compelling stories revolving around the deeper, more troubling notion that the American people and democracy itself were robbed.”