What if they held a presidential election and neither guy won? Or a dead man from Missouri defeated an incumbent Republican senator? Or two gazillionaire Democrats picked up crucial Senate seats for the party of the working class? Or the two major parties spent $3 billion to accomplish this muddled outcome? In the end, Election 2000 generated an adrenaline high from just such bizarre results. It also provided a dispiriting snapshot of the stalemated political system that governs the nation. Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore was able to close the sale with American voters. One of them is bound to be our next President, regardless.
The long-count election is not yet decided as this is written, and it would be imprudent–even stupid–to speculate on the final outcome. It is interesting, however, to consider how Gore might proceed with regard to the contested Florida vote. He can strike a statesmanlike pose and accept the recount result without protest, if it shows Bush as the winner; he can use surrogates to talk about voting irregularities; or he can go on the attack, personally suggesting he fears the election has been stolen and that he has a duty to fight. If Gore backs the third option, it will be a declaration of war on the Republicans. As we go to press, complaints of irregularities in the Florida voting are mounting, raising the prospect that the recount will devolve into endless legal challenges.
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, but Bush could also be facing a 50/50 party split in the Senate, where, as a practical matter, sixty votes are needed to legislate the big-ticket measures.
Ironically, if Gore should win, the Democrats would lose a Senate seat because Joe Lieberman got greedy and insisted on running for two offices at once. It will take awhile for the political community to absorb these and other oddities, but a few strong messages are already confirmed. Leave aside the personal weaknesses of the two candidates or other forms of second-guessing. The principal message is that neither major party is convincing to most Americans. Neither has a hold on a governing majority.
Yet we find a lot of hopeful evidence in this election that the Democratic Party now has a progressive opening to the future–if Democrats find the wit and will to pursue it aggressively. The hard-right issues, from racial antagonism to cultural intolerance, flamed out in this election, so much so that their candidate dared not invoke them. Bush instead borrowed pages from Bill Clinton’s playbook and sprinkled his campaign blueprint with feel-good symbolic measures. (Which is not to say that this reflected how he would govern; Newt-style harshness is out of vogue, but it may be that it has been replaced by a stealth conservatism–a veil of ersatz compassion that conceals a hard-core agenda.)
The re-energized ranks of organized labor, meanwhile, demonstrated their capacity to mobilize voters in state after state–an important marker for which way Democrats must turn if they hope to regain Congressional majorities two years from now. Albert Gore was frequently inept–actually tone-deaf–as a presidential candidate, but his balloon lifted when he framed the choice as “the people against the powerful” and sagged when he blurred his differences with Bush. Ralph Nader, though he failed to get 5 percent and public funding for the Green Party, raised left-liberal progressive ideas the Democratic Party has shunned during the Clinton era. From campaign finance reform to universal healthcare, restless public opinion is ready to be led in new directions.
It requires only a look at who voted for Gore to see the truth of this desire for more progressive goals and a roadmap of how to get there: Union families were more than one-fourth of the popular vote and voted nearly 2 to 1 for Gore; African-Americans came out in large numbers and voted 10 to 1 for Gore; pro-choice women helped give Gore an 11-point lead among female voters. These numbers make it hard to take Nader’s suggestion that it was his presence in the race–and the 2 or 3 percent the Greens captured–that will make Democrats take progressives in their own party more seriously.
The opportunities are also the principal dilemma for Democrats. Breaking out of the stalemate would require them to take a deep breath and choose between their financial patrons in business and finance or the ranks of alienated citizens who might actually restore the party to majority status. To do the latter, Democrats would not only have to relearn an authentic politics beyond focus groups and soundbites but also break up the big media’s mindless monopoly on political communications. The choice is especially threatening to the “New Democrat” syllogism promoted by the Democratic Leadership Council and the conservative corporate interests that finance it. Gore, after all, was the DLC candidate and, along with Lieberman, sincerely committed to its business-first mantra. But the strength of the base vote now makes it harder for the DLC to persuade nervous Democrats that rebuilding the party requires further moves to the right.
When the understandable recriminations are exhausted, forward-looking politicians should come to recognize that the Democratic Party cannot win without its progressive wing and its reform values. If Democrats want to grow as a share of the electorate and avoid the risk of Green challenges, they could do so by incorporating some elements of Nader’s agenda into their own. Given the deep skepticism that surrounds big politics, they will have to do so convincingly, that is, by mobilizing public support on controversial issues, not on cheap slogans. Those Democrats committed to the DLC version may, of course, persist in that direction, but they could find themselves facing Green opponents down the road, candidates who can’t win but can draw off a decisive sliver of votes. In that event, the Democratic Party would become still weaker while it searches for its soul.
Another inescapable message of Election 2000–one of Nader’s main themes but also the banner held aloft by Republican maverick John McCain–is the public’s utter disgust with the money-drenched political system. Their rhetoric notwithstanding, Democrats have become deeply complicit in the scandalous relationships of money politics, during the Clinton years and before. These habits are hard to break, of course, especially when most Republicans have no desire to change anything. But the only way for Democrats to liberate themselves and reconnect with citizens at large is to lead the fight for serious reform, including public financing for challengers, regardless of who sits in the White House. Getting serious again about such fundamental issues would revive the party’s spirits, but it also requires a little courage–political risk-taking in behalf of larger values. In the muddled circumstances of national political stalemate, the future may belong to those who find the nerve to forget the polling and instead rehabilitate connections with real people.