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.