Many complex and convoluted issues have been raised with regard to the irregularities in Florida’s election process on Tuesday, and we have all enjoyed making fun of how badly the networks screwed up on Tuesday night. But the truth is that one question and one question only should be dominating our political debate that this crucial moment in American history: Will the nation — and the news media — let the Republicans steal this presidential election?
RIGHT UP UNTIL Election Day, we heard over and over about the “legitimacy” questions that would arise should Al Gore win the electoral map as George Bush won the popular vote. Chris Matthews, writing contemptuously of the vice president’s political morality, noted, “Al Gore, knowing him as we do, may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush.” The Bush camp, according reports in The New York Daily News, were busy planning to challenge such a result. “The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” one Bush aide promised, “We fight.”
The form that fight would take, he explained, would be a major public campaign about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness - a massive talk-radio operation, and lots of television advertisements. “And I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted,” he noted.
A CURIOUS SILENCE
Funny, how nobody seems talking that way today. Gore has won the popular vote and, by all sensible measures, would certainly have won Florida, if Palm Beach County had used the kind of ballots that are clearly mandated by Florida law. It is an insult to one’s intelligence to argue that more than 3,000 elderly Jews intentionally voted for Pat Buchanan, when every piece of anecdotal and statistical evidence clearly indicates that they intended their votes to go for Al Gore. (Desperation was apparent in Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer’s pathetic contention that Palm Beach County is a “Pat Buchanan stronghold”.)
What’s more, the extremely confusing ballots they were using were a clear violation of the state’s regulations. Florida law specifies that ballots be constructed in such a fashion that voters mark an “X” in the blank space to the right of the name of the candidate of their choice. Well, Buchanan’s name was placed to the left. How much clearer does that need to be?
IT MATTERS NOW
Arguments from the Bush camp - particularly those coming from James A. Baker on Thursday - that the system has been used before, was published in the newspaper, and local Democrats did not previously object, are not relevant to this point. Baker, perhaps inadvertently, asks the right question: “Did the authorities comply with the law of Florida in conducting the election?” Well, no.
A law is a law. Laws do not change because they were not enforced once before, or because local Democratic officials did or did not object to them. This particular law never mattered before. And tough luck to Baker, Bush and company, it matters now. Add to this problem the destruction of another Palm Beach County, where 19,000 ballots that were tossed out before they were counted, because they contained more than one vote for president, and you have a profoundly compelling argument for a re-run of the election in that county: a election that virtually everyone assumes would make Al Gore our freely and fairly elected 43rd president. What is needed in Palm Beach County is not a recount but a revote.
‘FOR THE GOOD OF THE NATION’?
Not surprisingly, the Republicans would rather win the presidency by stealth than sit still for an honest defeat. I don’t find this shocking and I would expect the same from the Democrats. What is truly unbelievable however, is the fact that many of the media’s biggest Bigfoots appear to feel the same way - thereby taking their pre-election pro-Bush biases to new and hitherto unimagined heights. Listen to Tim Russert, among the most influential journalists in the entire country, advising Al Gore to be “magnanimous and statesmanlike,” by suggesting he tell the nation, “I won the popular vote. I gave up the presidency, in effect, because of the Electoral College and the Constitution.”
Note the complete absence in Russert’s definition of “magnanimous” and “statesmanlike” of Al Gore’s responsibility to help ensure Americans a fair election. Chris Matthews is reported by Salon.com to have offered up a similar observation that Gore concede for ‘the good of the nation.’
Even more shocking is The New York Times William Safire. (By way of mitigating circumstances, however, Safire is at least self-identified as a right-wing Republican pundit). He wrote in Thursday morning’s paper that “Gore and Bush have lawyers observing the recount now going on as if Florida were a third-world nation. Well and good; an automatic recount is not a challenge. But after the numbers come out today, the loser should address the nation in prime time with a gracious speech resolving any doubts, allaying suspicions and directing electors in the Electoral College to remain faithful to their charge. In the way he brings closure to this election, he will avert finality in his own political career. … If Gore cannot close the 1,700-vote gap in Florida, his political future depends on his not being the ‘sore winner’ of the majority of 96 million national votes. By acting to unify the nation, he would better be able to resist a primary challenge in 2004 from Senator Hillary Clinton. ”
Safire’s concern for Al Gore’s future is touching, and his fantasy about a Hillary Clinton candidacy amusing, but neither is remotely convincing. And while “closure” is nice - though a bit Clintonian - democracy is better. This nonsense about “gracious speech resolving any doubts, allaying suspicions” ought to embarrass its author, who, when it suits him, is an admirably tough-minded inquisitor. What, Mr. Safire, if these suspicions are based on reality? What is so gracious about conceding defeat when the truth is that you won?
Safire’s idea of good manners is really little more than the subversion of democracy on behalf of his buddies in the Bush camp. (Note how we are hearing nothing about the loser in the popular vote should concede “for the good of the country” anymore, now that it’s Bush, not Gore.)
Even Pat Buchanan has said he does not want credit for votes given to him because of faulty ballots. If Florida’s results deserve to be challenged, then they should be challenged. America is not a Banana Republic. We do not have to inaugurate another president until late in January. We have been at this democracy business for 200 years and we can stand a little “uncertainty” until we get it right. If the people of Florida intended collectively to instruct their Electoral College representatives to vote for Al Gore, not George Bush, and if the law provides to give them an opportunity to do that, well then fairness, democracy and the law of the land should ensure that it does. And we, in the media, had better get on the case… for the good of the country.
Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and a regular contributor to MSNBC.
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