John Kerry does not go as far as many Americans do when discussing the contested 2000 presidential election. This year's Democratic presidential nominee stops short of suggesting that Bush's presidency is illegitimate.
But Kerry obviously shares much of the frustration of grass-roots Democrats, progressive independents and other Americans who were troubled by the way the recounting of Florida's ballots was halted by a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000.
In a recent conversation about the anger over the 2000 election that surfaced in a number of the speeches during this year's Democratic National Convention, I asked Kerry whether he thought Bush was elected legitimately and the extent to which he felt the 2000 election was problematic.
"Those are two different questions. 'Legitimate' is a legal issue. 'Problem' is a perception issue," said Kerry. "The answer is, yes, there was a problem there. In the end, the Supreme Court made its judgment; that's how (Bush) was selected, by the Supreme Court by one vote. I think he should have respected that selection process a lot more than he did."
Kerry's point, as he explained, was that Bush should have noted that the nation was closely divided and governed in a conciliatory and moderate manner. Instead, the president and his aides acted as if they had received a mandate to implement deep tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, reshape energy policy in a manner that environmentalists see as threatening to the nation's most precious natural resources, and radically alter U.S. foreign policies.
Kerry is not merely troubled by the policy implications. He reflects back on the 2000 election with a clear sense of anger regarding the disenfranchisement of voters. "Too many thousands of votes were not counted in Florida. There was a stripping of people's voting rights through the purging process," the senator said, referring to the aggressive efforts of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush campaign co-chairwoman, to remove names from the lists of qualified voters in 2000. "People were disallowed on Election Day who were legitimately registered but told they weren't. There were extraordinary problems for the United States of America. It's unacceptable. And there are some indications that they (Florida officials) haven't done enough work to correct it all."
In his expressions of frustration with the court's intervention in 2000, and particularly in his use of the term "selected" to describe how Bush became president, Kerry is very much in tune with his party.Frustration over the 2000 Florida fiasco and the Supreme Court's intervention was a frequent theme for speakers at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Kerry.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the man who as the party's 2000 presidential nominee won the popular vote by a considerable margin but was denied the presidency when Florida's electoral votes were assigned to Bush, told the crowd that there was much to be learned from the 2000 election crisis. "The first lesson is this: Take it from me - every vote counts," he declared to thunderous applause and cheering. "In our democracy every vote has power. And never forget: That power is yours. Don't let anyone take it away or talk you into throwing it away. And let's make sure that this time every vote is counted."
While Republican operatives and their allies in the media are quick to tell Americans who express concerns about the thwarting of democracy in 2000 to "get over it," Gore was one of a number of speakers who suggested that the party faithful do the opposite. "To those who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all of those feelings," he declared. "But then I want you to do with them what I have done: Focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House."
For his part, Kerry promises that Democrats will be prepared to defend the integrity of the election process. "We're on top of that. We have lawyers who are looking at that, and I want to make sure we stay on top of it," he said. "This year, we're going to make sure every vote counts."
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2004 The Capital Times