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Chad All Over.

Assessing the 2000 presidential election

I had two reactions to the post-election struggle of 2000: elation and nostalgia. The elation came from years of teaching an introductory American government course, in which I always noted that the winner of the popular vote might still lose in the Electoral College. Gore's half-million-vote margin now allowed me to utter the five favorite words of teachers everywhere: "See, I told you so."

The nostalgia came from my hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York, where electoral shenanigans are a cherished part of local history. As a kid, I loved my grandfather's stories from the 1920s and 1930s, when poll workers used clever sleights-of-hand to spoil ballots marked for the "wrong" candidates. During the Florida recount, there was a familiar ring to news about manhandled punchcards and devoured chads. If heaven gets CNN, Gramp must have had great fun.

Most people, however, were less enthusiastic. By Thanksgiving, everybody had already heard enough jokes about Katherine Harris' makeup. The "Presidential Couple" sketch with Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond was hilarious the first time, on Saturday Night Live, but it got more than a little tired after its 100th airing on MSNBC. And anyone following the news must have gotten sick of reading that the contest was a "civics lesson." A Nexis search reveals that the phrase turned up 158 times in major newspapers between Election Day and the end of the year.

With the trauma of all that media overkill still relatively fresh, is there anything new to say about Election 2000? No matter what we learn from these four new books on the topic, we will have to wait longer for a truly definitive treatment of the 2000 election. It takes more than a few months to gain perspective and sort out the significant from the momentarily interesting. In a presidential race, as with any historic event, a good deal of relevant information does not surface until much later. Yet, if it's too early to provide all the answers about the election, these books are still valuable for the issues they raise, especially with regard to events in Florida.

Bush v. Gore reprints the full text of key legal documents, as well as dozens of op-ed articles. 36 Days serves up New York Times reporting between the election and the final Supreme Court decision. If not exactly beach reading, both are highly useful reference works. Deadlock is a bulked-up version of an eight-part series in The Washington Post. It sums up the whole post-election 2000 saga in a smooth, readable narrative, including tidbits that did not become public while the controversy actively raged. We learn, for instance, that some of Bush's lawyers initially thought that the equal protection clause of the Constitution was a lame basis for challenging the hand counts.

Smashmouth, the only one of the four to focus on the campaign itself, not just the Florida imbroglio, derives from Dana Milbank's articles in the Post and The New Republic. In the tradition of Trail Fever, Michael Lewis' book on the 1996 race, Smashmouth forgoes straight reporting in favor of side (and often snide) commentary. Where Theodore H. White depicted presidential campaigns as pageants, the Trail Fever/Smashmouth genre treats them as freak shows. Like its predecessor, Smashmouth is generally amusing, but sometimes it's nasty for no good reason. Milbank quotes a bystander's description of Steve Forbes' campaign workers as "die Jungen," adding that "there is something very Germany 1938 about them." Steve Forbes as a terrifying, violent spellbinder? Milbank must have had a traumatized childhood, cowering at the sight of Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo.

So why was Florida so screwy? Many suspects are trotted out: the obsolete equipment, the odd political culture of Florida in general and Miami in particular, the partisan loyalties of the state's Democratic attorney general and Republican secretary of state. It's a mistake, however, to focus on Florida's peculiarities, since the only unusual aspects of its tally were its pivotal role in the presidential race and the amount of attention it drew. By historical standards, Florida did a fine job. In 1948, Lyndon Johnson won his Senate seat through massive fraud, which included one precinct where (through sheer coincidence, I'm sure) dozens of voters signed the rolls in alphabetical order with identical handwriting.

Florida was by no means the only state using voting machinery that invited tabulation error and voter confusion. More than 2 million ballots nationwide did not register a vote for president. One Indiana election official told The New York Times: "You know why we never paid attention to this until now? I'll tell you: because we don't really want to know."

Despite the forests felled in writing about this election, few observers spotted the underlying reason why so many things went so wrong in so many places. Governments run elections. If governments botch most of the things they do, why on earth should we expect them to become models of honesty and efficiency when it comes to choosing the people who lead them?

An election is an exercise in counting large numbers of data points. Whether the data involve groundwater toxins, technological exports, illegal aliens, sexual assaults, or enemy casualties in wartime, governments have a shaky record in getting the numbers right. In 1929, the English economist and statesman Josiah Stamp put it this way: "The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But what you must never forget is that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases."

In Florida, the ambiguity of state law compounded the basic difficulty of getting accurate totals. As the Florida Supreme Court explained, the time frame for conducting a manual recount conflicted with the time frame for submitting county returns. Once again, the problem is hardly unique either to Florida or to election law, since murkiness pervades many state and federal statutes on a wide range of topics. Consider the U.S. tax code, which Congress "simplified" in 1986. It is so confusing that when Treasury Department investigators posed as ordinary citizens asking about their 2000 taxes, IRS employees gave wrong answers nearly half the time.

Speaking of confusion, consider the infamously perplexing "butterfly ballot." It was not a bit of Republican skullduggery-the designer was a Democratic official-but instead was the unanticipated consequence of good intentions. In Deadlock, we read that a recent change in Florida law eased access to the state's presidential ballot, meaning that voters could choose from 10 candidates instead of three or four, as in past years. But fitting all those names on the ballot might require smaller type, which the Palm Beach County election supervisor thought would vex elderly voters. Accordingly, she split the ballot into two facing pages, with one column of punch holes in the center and arrows showing which holes corresponded with which candidates. As we now know, this design befuddled thousands of voters, who may have voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Gore.

Expanded ballot access: good intention. Large type for the elderly: good intention. Have government mix them, and you get a fiasco. Sounds like the history of public housing.

Rocky outcomes become even more likely when government indulges in rushed, last-minute decisions. One cause of the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis was an 11th-hour addition to a 1980 financial services bill that raised the cap on federal deposit insurance. Lawmakers did not stop to think that the measure would encourage S&L operators to gamble with deposits, since the operators knew that Uncle Sam would cover their bets. Similar haste characterized court decisions in the Florida case. At the prompting of Al Gore's legal team, the Florida Supreme Court cited an Illinois court decision that seemed to say that ballot dimples should count as votes. In fact it said no such thing.

Time pressures also scarred the work of the U.S. Supreme Court. Knowing that they are setting law for the ages, the Supremes normally take weeks or months to polish their decisions and opinions. This time, they had days and hours. As any college professor can tell you, all-nighters seldom result in good papers. In one of the essays in Gore v. Bush, constitutional scholar Richard Epstein writes that the Court produced "a potpourri of decisions that can only confuse an electorate that has grown weary of this circus." With more time, the Court might have built a stronger majority around something other than the equal-protection clause, which struck many legal observers as dubious.

Another key element in why the post-election mess played out the way it did was the military mindset of the combatants. In describing oral arguments before the Court, Deadlock says that "lawyers marched onto the field like rank upon rank of well-drilled cadets." This language is typical of all four books, which abound in military metaphors.

Just before the Supreme Court halted the recount, says Deadlock, Bush operative Joe Allbaugh organized an "airlift" of watchers. Allbaugh later explained, "We were moving and mobilizing an army." In an op-ed in Bush v. Gore, Ron Brownstein writes of "this war for the White House." Two other articles accuse Gore supporters of attempting a "coup." In 36 Days, we see accounts of "nuclear button options" and such headlines as: "GOP LAUNCHES MULTIPLE LEGAL ATTACKS" and "GORE SET TO FIGHT ON MANY FRONTS." In Smash mouth, Gore operative Michael Wholey reflects on strategy on the early Democratic primaries: "If we lose at first, it becomes World War I, a delegate race, winning through attrition."

Why all the war talk? Politics, like war, is a zero-sum struggle involving high stakes, huge costs, and masses of people. Concepts from the military, then, can help us understand the 2000 campaign and its aftermath. As Gen. George S. Patton said, "Speed is the essential element of success." Military leaders have always seen speed as a "force multiplier," allowing one side to seize ground while the other is still getting ready.

According to a retrospective article in 36 Days, Gore campaign chief William Daley was gearing for battle before sunrise on the day after the election: "Bleary, stunned and emotionally spent, Daley and the others began to construct a plan. Speed would be critical." They seemed to have the upper hand until Democratic efforts to invalidate military ballots turned public opinion against them. "The Bush team had gotten a slow start in the PR war," says Deadlock, "but here was a powerful new arsenal to fire off at Gore."

The Republicans took the advice expressed by radical community organizer Saul D. Alinsky: "Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat." As Deadlock and 36 Days show, Republicans organized boisterous protests, stunning Democrats who did not expect such a show. They claimed that a Republican "riot" intimidated the Miami-Dade canvassing board into halting its recount, but their desperate accusation flunked the giggle test. (Chants and placards from people clad in Brooks Brothers suits just didn't look scary on TV.)

Another independent effort employed guerrilla tactics. Dave Enrich and Matt Grossmann, two seniors at Claremont McKenna College, started a Web site listing the names and addresses of Bush electors. It urged citizens to write the electors and ask them to switch their votes on the grounds that Gore won the popular vote. Though the effort failed to flip any electors, its ingenuity and chutzpah gained extraordinary publicity in major national newspapers and on network news. (I bear some responsibility here: Both had taken my intro course in which I talked about the Electoral College.)

In military leadership, character counts. The armed services stress character in training and promotion because people are more likely to follow leaders who display integrity and perseverance. Milbank points out that a tough campaign lets a candidate "demonstrate and build leadership qualities." As Deadlock notes, Gore showed those qualities more clearly after the election than before: "Again and again, his aides found themselves amazed by his consistency, his decisiveness during the War for Florida." His post-election steadiness "confirmed something that Gore's troops had long suspected--he was happier and more effective when he wasn't asking people for their votes."

Bush also came across sturdier during the Florida struggle than during the campaign itself. Early in the campaign, his sometimes-fractured language led one network producer to dub him "the English patient." Milbank lists some of the Bushisms-"terriers and bariffs" instead of "tariffs and barriers"--that made him a late-night comedy hit and led some critics to regard him as an amiable, thoughtless goofball. After the election, Bush demonstrated a reassuring calmness and concern for others. like a good general, Deadlock observes, "Bush considered morale one of his most important jobs."

The military metaphor brings us back to our first point: the basic messiness of the electoral process. Warfare, after all, is a function of government. Like everything else that government does, it involves uncertainty and error. So do campaign politics. Deadlock and 36 Days both close with analyses of the strategic and tactical errors that may have shaped the outcome, such as Gore's initial failure to seek a statewide recount. In none of the books do we get a firm answer to the Big Question: Who really won? We may never know whether Gore's mistakes outweighed Bush's mistakes, since the mistakes of the electoral process left a permanent fog over the outcome.

Winston Churchill perhaps offered the best epitaph for the 2000 election: "Nothing but genius, the daemon in man, can answer the riddles of war...and since that quality is much rarer than the largest and purest diamonds, most wars are mainly tales of muddle."

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Bush v. Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary, edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and William Kristol, Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 344 pages, S15.95

Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election, by the political staff of The Washington Post, New York: Public Affairs, 271 pages, $23

Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush, by Dana Milbank, New York: Basic Books, 399 pages, $26

36 Days: The Complete Chronicle of the 2000 Presidential Election Crisis, by correspondents of The New York Times, New York: Times Books, 380 pages, $15
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Title Annotation:elections 2000
Author:Pitney Jr., John J.
Publication:Reason
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Words:2413
Previous Article:Beyond Miramax.
Next Article:Ifs and Butts.
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