Ballot Box

The End

Say this for the post-election: It was a lot more compelling, and a lot more edifying, than the campaign itself. From April to November, we weathered a hyperbolic quarrel about issues of no great moment. One candidate argued that the federal government should offer prescription drug coverage to the elderly. The other argued that the government should help the elderly purchase private drug coverage. One proposed a medium-sized, complicated tax cut, the other a big, simple tax cut. One wanted more federal spending on schools tied to results, the other better results in schools, encouraged by more spending.

Given the reality that these issues were going to be settled through a process of congressional accommodation anyway, it was hard to get worked up about the picky distinctions. The small stakes of the campaign left swing voters pondering instead the comparative personal shortcomings of the two candidates. In the most uncharitable light, the race devolved into a choice between an overbearing wonk and an insouciant dolt. The critical moment in the campaign was the first debate in Boston, where Gore was even more overbearing than Bush was doltish. I abhor “horse race” journalism as much as the next fellow. But this time, about the only thing that made the campaign interesting was how close it was.

The post-campaign has been more thrilling and more distressing. The nation awoke on Nov. 8, after too little sleep, to the entirely unforeseen calamity of a virtual tie. In comparison to the issues of the campaign, the questions that surfaced in the recount were serious, unexpected, and fascinating. How much fairness does democracy require? What is the proper role of the state and federal courts in an election? How can Chad be pregnant? The cast of characters improved greatly as well. After months of political mediocrity, we got to see performances by people with genuine skill in their chosen fields, like David Boies in law and Warren Christopher in tailoring. Others, less familiar, were tossed up onto the national stage and tested in every way. One day, the result was being driven by the painted apparatchik Katherine Harris. The next day it seemed to be in the hands of Charles Burton, the modestly heroic chairman of the Palm Beach County canvassing board. We saw some react with grace under pressure and others react by flexing their principles. It was, quite simply, the greatest, longest election night drama we’ll ever see.

We also got a glimpse of the two candidates in a more revealing, less artificial environment than the campaign trail. It seemed to me a kind of moral pop quiz. There was a fairly straightforward, equitable solution to the impasse: Count all the votes in Florida by hand and see who got more of them. You learned a huge amount about the candidates from they way they reacted to the existence of a fair solution that wouldn’t necessarily be to their advantage. Both Gore and Bush, it seems to me, failed the test. But they failed in different ways, and to different degrees.

Gore did show himself as someone who can handle an intense crisis. The good news was that he was able to shake off his hired guns and act on his own instincts. The bad news was that those instincts were flawed. Not to be too melodramatic about it, but I think we witnessed a kind of battle for Al Gore’s soul, with personal ambition on one side and regard for fairness on the other. Gore did care about what was right, but at many points he seemed to care about it mainly in terms of public relations. He said he would accept the results of a statewide hand recount, but only after criticism mounted that the determination he was seeking was partial and unfair. According to an account in the Washington Post, Gore refused Boies’ request to join the Seminole and Martin County lawsuits, which attempted to overturn the Florida result on the basis of mishandled absentee ballot applications. That was the right decision. But Gore’s reason was revealing. It wasn’t that it would be wrong to punish voters who acted in good faith. It was that throwing out Republican votes would be seen as inconsistent with his position that every vote should count. Even so, Gore wasn’t willing to entirely relinquish those suits as a potential basis for victory, just as he never dropped his challenge to marginal absentee ballots that would have helped Republicans. When his other legal hopes began to fade, Gore hedged his disavowal of the Seminole and Martin County suits.

In addition to being the right thing to do, I think taking a more principled position might have better served Gore’s self-interest. The New York Times considered some alternative scenarios in a fine piece published yesterday. Had Gore requested a statewide hand recount, the Florida Supreme Court might have ordered one on the first pass of his case when there was still time to get it done. I also think a consistent, principled call for fairness would have been seen as such and created a popular drumbeat in Gore’s favor. Instead, Gore clutched his potential advantage from a partial recount until the point when relinquishing it looked like just another tactical move.

But contrast this behavior to that of Gore’s opponent, who seems not even to know what fairness is–or if he does, he confuses it with good manners. For the most part, Bush avoided looking like he was trying to seize the prize pre-emptively. But while the candidate was projecting an image of restraint, his family henchmen were cruising around with truncheons. James Baker appeared and unleashed a barrage of spin in which it was, at times, impossible to find a truthful or accurate word. Baker attempted to discredit the very idea of hand recounts, though they were clearly warranted under the law and the circumstances. While trying to seem aloof, Bush was authorizing a transparent effort was to delay justice until it was no longer possible.

To those who remember the 1988 campaign, or the South Carolina primary, this was familiar Bush behavior. The candidate sanctions brass-knuckle tactics in order to win. But at the same time, he elevates himself above such sordid doings. This Cartesian approach works especially well for George W. because of the convincing impression he gives of not knowing what is being done in his name. At one level, the cluelessness is probably authentic. I doubt Bush could have passed a quiz on his own side’s arguments. But at another level, it’s a shrewd calculation. It’s easier to be a nice guy, the way Bush was in his speech last night, if you don’t know too much about what your thugs are doing. Whether this will prove an effective management style for our next chief executive is another matter.

In any case, Bush’s salami tactics worked. He both evaded fairness and avoided public contempt. But what we are left with is a freakish result to a brutal process. Bush, who may well have had fewer legal votes cast for him in Florida, is president on the basis of technological breakdown abetted by political hardball and legal maneuvering. You can’t even say Bush was elected president without a lengthy footnote. Does this make him illegitimate? I don’t think I’d go that far. Bush prevented fairness, but he did so by operating within the law. He has a right to be treated as a real president, even if the Associated Press recount eventually shows that Gore won. But when Bush said last night that he would work to earn our respect, he was on the right track. He’ll need to work for it because he’s starting from a baseline of zero.

I detect in the response to Al Gore’s speech last night (and to my mild dissent from the universal praise for it) a tremendous desire not only for an ending to this saga, but for a happy ending. The country wants to see the loser reconciled to the winner and given a consoling pat on he back. It wants an affirmation that the system worked as promised, that the machinery of democracy is still running more or less smoothly. I’m afraid that I can’t endorse that conclusion. Not because the wrong guy won, but because the system really did fail. No, we didn’t face a deep constitutional crisis or a Third-World-style succession struggle. But a democratic system that cannot generate confidence that the winner actually won is more than a system that hiccupped. It’s a system that choked.

Looking back over the long stretch of the campaign, it seems to me that the Florida fiasco was not purely an anomaly. In a way, it was merely the straw that broke the back of a presidential selection process that has becoming bad and undemocratic in a large variety of ways. My list of complaints starts with a perpetual campaign that begins for the most avid candidates the day after the inauguration and is in full swing a year and a half before the election. It continues with a primary process that vests arbitrary authority in a few small states while disenfranchising the majority. I’d condemn the fact that fund raising has become such an overwhelming factor; that manipulative and often dishonest 30-second ads are more influential than ever; and that most of the media coverage is thin, paltry stuff. Not to mention the Electoral College, which directs the candidates almost exclusively to states where the vote is close and means that the winner is not necessarily the winner. You could argue that the latest undemocratic revelation is merely sour icing on an inedible cake. 

So no closure for me. I’m still disappointed by the guy who lost, outraged at the guy who won, and stunned by the casuistry of the U.S. Supreme Court. But as the president-elect likes to say, we do finally have finality, and I am finally going on vacation.