Recalling 2000 Presidential Election

U.S. Supreme Court decided outcome of 2000 Presidential Election on December 12, 2000

On November 26, 2000, I wrote an account of that years presidential election – which had yet to be decided, so I added an epilogue on January 2, 2001. With tomorrow’s election looming, I decided to share my story from 16 years ago, with the hope that history does not repeat itself and that we have an early night tomorrow. It’s a long post, but much of it is relevant today. The Clintons play a central role as does Florida and its voters. Perhaps most importantly was the noble and selfless way that Al Gore handled the final outcome.

The Presidential election of the year 2000 was finally decided on – well, it has yet to be decided, and it’s already November 26, 2000, nineteen days after election day.  Since early in the morning on Wednesday, November 8, Florida has loomed as the key to the election.  George W. Bush has led by no more than 900 votes of the more than 6 million cast in that state.  This coming Friday, the United States Supreme Court is to hear arguments.  There’s a sense that we are witnessing history, but there is also a sense of contentment with the system, that it will all work out in the end.  Other than the candidates and the news media, no one seems all that agitated.

This is called the closest presidential election since 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden.  Tilden, apparently, won that election, but it was so close that the House of Representatives decided the outcome.  In a deal that brought an end to Reconstruction, Democrats in the House agreed to elect Hayes president.  The historical parallels between today and that earlier era are more extensive than the closeness of the election results.  The last quarter of the nineteenth century was characterized by uninspired political leaders, particularly Presidents, with societal power centered in big business.  One of the reasons this election was so close is that neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush inspired much confidence.  Many say that Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, has far more influence on our lives than whoever is the next president.

Much will be written about this race, no matter what the outcome.  Newsweek published an entire issue devoted to everything but the final outcome.  The following are my own observations on the race.

The overall campaign was uninspiring.  For the Republicans, George W. Bush, son of a former president, seized the nomination very quickly on the strength of the huge amount of money he raised.  Bush’s political experience is thin.  He has served one and a half terms as governor of Texas.  Before that, he worked in the oil business and was owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.  He once drank to excess, but has not had a drink in 14 years.  As filtered through the media, he is very personable but certainly not an intellectual giant, almost relishing in his fractured syntax and failure to absorb much in his time a Yale and Harvard Business School.

The main challenge to Bush came from John McCain, a United States Senator from Arizona who is best known for the five years he spent as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese after his Navy bomber was shot down during the war.  McCain’s candidacy excited many across the political spectrum.  He won the New Hampshire primary by an overwhelming margin.  His campaign was stopped in its tracks in South Carolina by a brutal counterattack waged by Bush surrogates.  Bush coasted to the nomination and emerged from the Republican convention in Philadelphia with a clear lead in national polls.

Vice President Al Gore was the presumed Democratic nominee although a few Democrats, most notably Senator John Kerry contemplated challenges.  In the end, only former Senator (and New York Knick) Bill Bradley mounted a challenge.  I was attracted to Bradley by my contact with him during the 1996 Kerry-Weld Senate campaign.  Bradley had come to Lowell one day, touring the Boott Cotton mill and visiting Paul Tsongas at his Belvidere home.  I accompanied him (and Congressman Marty Meehan) there, and sat through what I considered to be a historical meeting of two national political figures.  Because I had my own race to worry about, however, I did not get involved in the Bradley campaign.  That omission was fortunate, since Bradley never really got off the ground.  Gore roughed him up in some ads, and Bradley either ignored the attacks or offered an ineffective response.  By spring, Gore had the nomination locked up.

A number of other factors provide background.  Bill Clinton remains an enigma.  He’s presided over eight years of prosperity.  The stock market is at an all-time high.  Inflation is under control despite the long period of economic growth.  The world is largely at peace, and our country is secure.  Crime is down.  By almost all measures, Clinton should be regarded as one of the better presidents the country has had.  But Clinton’s personal problems and his impeachment trial (which ended in his favor) have tainted his legacy.  Still, many think that if the Constitution permitted him to run for a third term, he would, and he would probably win.

Those who dislike Clinton – and there are many and they dislike him vehemently – had a substitute target for their hostility this year.  Hillary Clinton chose to run for the United States Senate seat from New York that was being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Never having lived in New York left Hillary Clinton open to “carpetbagger” charges, but she and her husband purchased a home and she took up residence in the state.  Her opponent, for most of the spring and summer, was to be New York City mayor Rudolph Guilliani.  Like Hillary, the mayor is a figure that evokes strong emotions, both pro and con.  What looked to be a brutally fascinating campaign changed dramatically late in the summer when Guilliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer, an illness that killed his father.  After much contemplation – many Republicans would say far too much – Rudy dropped out of the race.  Rick Lazio, a youthful Congressman from Long Island leapt in, and the race was on.

Mrs. Clinton was not popular with the electorate, particularly with many women, the polls showed, but she campaigned ceaselessly, spending nearly every day in the state.  The key moment came in a debate, when Lazio left his podium and approached Clinton, badgering her to sign a pledge against using “soft” money in the campaign.  Analysts said that his waving the paper and wagging his finger reminded many women of an irate husband demanding an explanation for an unexpected bill.  Less dramatic, but just as important, Lazio spent most of the campaign attacking Hillary for one thing or another, and never told the voters much about him.  In the end, Mrs. Clinton won a huge victory.  Perhaps her election is a kind of redemption for her, allowing her to assert her independence from her wayward husband.  For him and his thirst for being the center of attention, having his wife begin her career in elective office at the moment that his comes to an end, must be some type of punishment.

Despite the soap opera-like drama of the New York Senate race, the story is about the presidency.  Newsweek called the period between the last contested primaries and the late summer conventions the phony war, referring to the period of World War Two between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the invasion of France in June 1940 when not much happened.  The candidates apparently spent the time looking for a winning message that would allow them to connect with the voters.  Neither succeeded.

The Republican convention came first.  Held in Philadelphia, it relegated the “usual suspects” of the Republican Party to the shadows, and crowded the podium with a rainbow coalition of women and minorities.  Bush received a substantial boost from the convention, but his choice of Dick Cheney as his vice presidential nominee was uninspiring.  Cheney, who had served as the elder Bush’s Secretary of Defense was a low-key bureaucrat who had made a recent fortune as the head of a Texas oil company.  Cheney, too, reinforced the impression that George W was an empty suit, a front man for the resurgence of the coterie that held power under his father.

Gore’s candidacy received a much need jolt from his selection of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate.  Local folks were especially interested in the selection, since John Kerry was rumored to be on the final list of four.  His recent win over William Weld in a hotly contested Senate race had proved his strength as a campaigner, his ties with Hollywood and the millions in campaign contributions to be had there, and his heroic service in Vietnam were all positives.  In the end, being another liberal from Massachusetts proved too big an obstacle to overcome.  Another Senator, first term, former trial attorney John Edwards of North Carolina supposedly received serious consideration for a variety of reasons.  He is very telegenic, his youth sends the message of new leadership, and he had proven to be a substantial fundraiser.  His inexperience, however, was a major reason he was not chosen.

Lieberman’s selection was very well received. Perhaps it was a way for the country to purge itself of latent anti-Semitism that lingers in some layers of American society.  Tactically, Lieberman would help mobilize a key constituency – the Jewish vote – in the crucial states of New York and Florida.  Strategically, the choice of Lieberman – one of the few Democrats to publicly condemn President Clinton’s misconduct – allowed Gore to further distance himself from the President who must have been seen as an anchor on his Vice President’s candidacy.

Gore’s separation from Clinton was further reinforced in a very strange way at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.  Although Gore received substantial positive publicity for his choice of Vice President, much of the coverage at the beginning of the convention spoke of Gore’s irritation with Bill and Hillary soaking up substantial dollars at California fund raisers, money that might have gone towards Gore’s efforts.  The convention was unremarkable until the final evening.  As Gore strode towards the podium to make his acceptance speech, he embraced his wife in a passionate kiss that lasted several seconds.  “The kiss” became the story of the convention.  With it, Gore again demonstrated that he was not Bill Clinton, that he had a successful, passionate marriage.   And Gore also connected with women voters, apparently, who were uninspired by his candidacy.  In the days following the Democratic convention, Bush’s lead seemed to evaporate.

Wrangling over the debate schedule was the next event of note.  A non-partisan presidential debate commission had scheduled three debates – in Boston, Raleigh-Durham, and St. Louis.  In the weeks before the first debate, Bush remained non-committal, finally challenging Gore to a debate on the Larry King show.  Gore said, certainly, as long as you agree to the three scheduled debates.  Bush hemmed and hawed and it received particular attention here, since the first debate site was University of Massachusetts at Boston.  In the end, Bush relented and agreed to all three debates.  His waffling was costly, however, for it left the impression that he was trying to duck the debates.

The debates went on.  Bush succeeded in lowering expectations, and surpassing those lowered expectations.  For that, he should probably be judged the winner.  Gore, who had a reputation as a seasoned, very successful debater, squandered his chance.  In the first debate, both his makeup and his mannerisms – sighs and shakes of his head – were grossly exaggerated, making him sound and appear foolish.  Gore never recovered from that first debate.  He never seemed to speak from his heart.  Every answer seemed form fitted to some poll result or focus group and that made him seem insincere and phony.  The excessive theatrical makeup he wore in the first debate seemed to reflect his personality.  The irony is that Gore is very intelligent with well-thought positions on every issue, no doubt.  But his inability to let himself go, to trust his instincts, to lead and instead to overly analyze and package every aspect of his political life might well have cost him the presidency.

Through October, Gore seemed mired in a swamp of consultants and poll results.  He repeatedly exaggerated small details – he spoke of how his mother would sing him to sleep with the ditty “Look for the union label,” a song that wasn’t composed until Gore was 27 years old.  He talked of how he pays less for an arthritis medication for his dog, than his mother in law pays for the same drug, yet neither actually used it.  He spoke of a girl in a Florida school that was so crowded that she didn’t have a seat, but that was only the first day while the new desks were being unpacked.  These and other exaggerations were seized upon the press and became a recurring theme.  They raised questions about Gore’s credibility, probably with devastating effect since much of Gore’s strategy was designed to separate himself from the lying President he served.

Clinton’s participation – or lack thereof – produced many stories.  The ever-present polls must have shown that Clinton was a net negative for Gore, for the Vice President kept him off the main stage throughout the campaign.  As Maureen Dowd wrote the day after Clinton appeared in Lowell at a fundraiser for Mary Meehan, the best politician in the Democratic Party had been relegated to appearing at second-rate fundraisers in second rate cities with bad restaurants.  Despite his faults, Clinton has a hypnotic power and Gore’s failure to use him may have been a mistake.  Sure, the polls might have shown that he was viewed negatively, but who is to say what the polls would show after a couple of weeks of Clinton extolling the virtues of Al Gore and his participation in the strongest economic stretch in many, many years.

In the weeks leading up to the election, however, all national polls showed Bush up by several points.  He acted like someone who was convinced that he would win easily.  He campaigned in states that were assumed to be safely Democratic like California, Washington, and even Tennessee.  Ten days before the election he took a Sunday off and stayed home.  Gore, conversely, campaigned feverishly, but he too went to states that he was thought to have locked up long ago.

Part of Gore’s problem was Ralph Nader’s candidacy as the nominee of the Green Party.  Nader has no chance to win, but in such a close race, his presence posed a risk of siphoning enough Gore votes away to cost the Democrats the election.   Nader claims that there is no difference between the nominees of the two major parties.  He has attracted a coalition of environmentalists and hard-core liberals who are disillusioned by the Clinton-led Democratic shuffle to the center.  The Republicans had no such third party threat to their right flank.  Pat Buchanan was the nominee of the Reform Party, to be sure, but any power that group had was eliminated by extreme factionalism early in the summer at their convention.  And Buchanan’s personal charisma was harnessed by some type of surgery-causing medical condition that kept him laid up for most of the summer.

Going into the final weekend of the campaign, credibility exploded as a major issue, but it was Bush, not Gore who was under scrutiny.  A Maine TV station reported that Bush had been arrested for OUI back in 1976, something that had never been disclosed.  Although it was close, no reporter could seem to find an instance where Bush had falsely answered any question, and his ever present acknowledgement of his earlier drinking problem almost made this new revelation old news.  He tried to turn it back on Gore, by speculating about how odd it was that the story was leaked by a Democratic activist the weekend before the election.

Tension was high on Election Day.  Early reports indicated record turnouts around the country.  While all the polls indicated Bush was ahead, if Gore could win key states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, he might prevail in the Electoral College, even if he lost the popular vote.  Early on election night, things looked good for Gore.  The networks projected him the winner in the three key states, and the winner in other states that he was expected to win.  Certainly, there was no evidence of a Bush landslide.

At 10:30 P.M., the networks “pulled back” their projection of a Gore victory in Florida, attributing it to a “data entry” error of exit poll information.  Bush seemed resurgent, capturing Tennessee and Arkansas.  Still, Gore pulled out New Mexico and California.  As the evening wore on, it was apparent that Florida was the key to the election, but after getting burned by their earlier projection, the networks would only say that it was too close to call.

I went to bed at 1:00 A.M.  Bush had 246 electoral votes to Gore’s 242.  To win, 270 were needed.  Although a few states remained undecided, Florida remained the key.  Whoever won it would win the election, and Bush was leading 50% to 48% with 90% of the precincts counted.  Before going to sleep, I tuned a portable radio to WBZ and left it next to my bed.  For some reason, I awoke at 2:30 A.M. and flipped on the radio, only to hear that the networks finally were projecting George W. Bush the winner in Florida and the next President of the United States.  I turned off the radio and fell back asleep.

Shortly before 5:30 A.M., I awoke and rushed down stairs to catch the TV news.  The TV anchors were all saying it was too close to call, and for a while I thought I was watching video filmed the night before prior to the Florida result.  Someone soon explained what had happened.  At 2:30 A.M., the networks had projected Bush, who had a 10,000 vote lead, the winner in Florida.  Gore called Bush, congratulated him, and his motorcade began its drive from his hotel to the auditorium where his supporters waited to hear his concession speech.  On the way there, however, the final votes in Florida were going Gore’s way.  Soon, one of his aides contacted the motorcade and told them not to let Gore concede.  After some discussion, Gore called Bush back and withdrew his concession.

And so it has remained, for nearly three weeks.  In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was much said about a confusing “butterfly” ballot in Palm Beach County that led many who intended to vote for Gore to mistakenly chose Buchanan instead.  Because of the narrow margin, state law required an automatic recount.  Since many counties used punch card ballots, that only meant that the cards would be run through the machine again.  Gore filed for manual recounts in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties.  Bush seemed to depend on his campaign co-chairs (his brother the governor and the Secretary of State) to cut short any recounts, certify his victory, and make him the president.

There has been much debate about the merits of manual recounts.  Having been through several of punch card ballots, I know that hand recounts are far more accurate since intended votes do not always dislodge the small perforated rectangle (the now famous “chad”) in the corresponding spot on the card.  Such marginal votes typically occur for both sides, usually in rough proportion to the votes the candidates received.  Because these recounts were only to be conducted in three predominantly Democratic counties where Gore won by wide margins, Gore presumably would pick up enough votes to take the lead.  Consequently, the Republicans have fought desperately to prevent or disrupt these hand recounts.  It seems they may have succeeded since Miami-Dade abandoned its hand recount, and the others used more stringent standards, ignoring many “dimpled” ballots that should have been counted for Gore.  It does not appear that Gore has captured enough votes to overtake Bush.

The final result will not be determined for a while, though.  The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Bush appeal – the legal maneuvering is all quite murky.  Oral arguments will be held this Friday.  Until then, the rhetoric is heated and many people are growing tired of the partisan sniping.

Epilogue (January 2, 2001)

On December 13, 2000, thirty-six days after the election, Al Gore conceded.  George W. Bush would be the next president of the United States.  The outcome of the election was determined by a five to four vote of the United States Supreme Court, announced the previous day.  Neither the judiciary nor the legal community acquitted themselves well in this episode.

The first significant ruling occurred on November 21 when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that contrary to the stated intentions of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, hand recounts must be included in the certified vote total.  But some behind the scenes shenanigans by the mayor of Miami, who Gore thought was supporting him but who probably cut a deal with Bush supporters, caused the Miami recount to be abandoned.  The other counties did not complete their recounts by the November 26 deadline, so Harris appeared on television that Sunday night to certify the results and proclaim Bush the winner.

Gore’s hopes remained alive, resting now in the Tallahassee courtroom of Judge N. Sanders Sauls.  The issue in this trial was whether hand recounts should be held.  Ballots were transported from southeastern Florida to Tallahassee in the northwest, on a Ryder rental truck in a televised convoy reminiscent of the famous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase of a decade ago.  Surprising many who knew anything about recounts, Sauls ruled against Gore who promptly appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

On Friday, the Florida justices, on a four to three vote, ordered an immediate hand recount of all ballots in the entire state that registered as blank votes during the machine count.  Gore supporters, me included, felt a surge of optimism, the first since election night.  I was resigned to a Bush presidency, but this seemed an amazing reversal.  The decision was aided by Gore’s victory in the national popular vote by more than half a million votes.

The Democratic euphoria was short lived, however.  On Saturday, December 9, the United States Supreme Court enjoined any recounts in Florida until it rendered a decision.  Arguments were held on that Monday and on Tuesday, Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and O’Connor decided to end the matter.  Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter dissented, with Stevens observing that, with its decision, the majority sacrificed the court’s reputation for staying above politics.  Indeed, those justices who snatched the decision from the highest court of Florida were long-time champions of judicial deference to state courts.  But they are also advocates of the judicial doctrine of “finality.”  Judges, conservatives especially, see “a final decision” as a positive good, one that must be achieved despite doubt about the accuracy or justice of the result.  Thus, defendants remain in jail despite new evidence of their innocence because the system desires finality.

And so, on Wednesday night (December 13), Al Gore addressed the nation on live television.  He was relaxed, engaging, humorous – all the things that were missing from his campaign persona.  Ironically, it took him losing to let his true personality emerge.  Some pundits suggested that Gore’s stellar performance indicated his status as front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2002.  That speculation died quickly, however, buried by numerous unattributed quotes from prominent Democrats who said, in effect, that this guy blew a sure win, and you don’t get a second chance after doing that.

George W. Bush followed Gore on television that night.  He was gracious and seemed a bit more relaxed.  He began naming cabinet members and people shifted their interest to preparing for Christmas which was less than two weeks away.  Those addicted to politics began speculating on the Massachusetts governor’s race of 2002, an election that should be worth another long chapter in this book.