Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

December 15, 2000

Elites at War

The air is already thick with gaseous exhortations for bipartisanship. This is a time for healing. A time for uniting….A time for putting aside partisan bickering….A time for consensus….A time to hew to the center….A time to shun the extremes. A time to expand government, in other words. A time for such perennial favorites as gun control, putting more cops on the street, free prescription drugs for the elderly, and a pay raise for the military. Foreign adventures are sure to follow. The Democrats may hate George W., but they will work with him. White House and Capitol Hill will continue to squander public money on pork barrel projects and corporate welfare, just as they had done throughout the Clinton years.

Today’s political fights are not about ideology. They are about raw power. This is what makes them especially ferocious. When jobs, money and patronage are at stake no one can afford to give an inch. America’s elite is at war with itself. Arrayed on on one side are Hollywood, the big media and many of the lawyers. Arrayed on the other side are big oil, tobacco, the aerospace industry, indeed much of corporate America. The Gore-Bush contest may have been the most boring, issueless election on record. Yet without the US Supreme Court’s abrupt termination, it may well have ended in bloodshed. Bill Clinton was probably America’s most conservative President since Calvin Coolidge. Yet Republican hatred of him ran so deep that it went ahead and impeached him.

Contrary to the outpourings of dreary establishment types like David Broder and David Gergen, it is America’s elite not the nation itself that is deeply divided. In the normal course of things, imperial adventures – "humanitarian intervention," hunting for oil in the Caspian, or hitting back at the "terrorists" – can be relied on to paper over the cracks. Clinton learned this a long time ago. Whenever he got into trouble politically, out came the bombers and some country somewhere would get it. Conservatives applauded the bombs, liberals the "humanitarianism." During the Fight for Florida neither Gore nor Bush had this option at his disposal. So bitter was the acrimony that representatives of the two factions were unable even to cobble together an agreement to secure an orderly succession of power. Consider: On November 7 the United States was confronted with scarcely the most intractable problem in the world. There had been a close election and there had to be a recount. This sort of thing happens every day. It should not have been beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to come up with a reasonable plan to count Florida’s votes. One proposal: There would be a statewide manual recount, but so-called "dimpled chads" would be tossed out. Another proposal: A statewide manual recount, with discretion left to the individual canvassing boards and possible disputes left to the later contest stage.

Vice President Al Gore announced, however, that he only wanted a manual recount in four heavily Democratic counties. This had nothing to do with the closeness of the vote. Nor did it have anything to do with getting an accurate tally of the votes cast. Gore was just trawling for extra votes in Democratic precincts. Governor Bush, on the other hand, wanted no recounts at all. Having lost the popular vote in the country, he was nonetheless happy to assume the Presidency on the basis of a 300-vote margin in a state in which 6 million people went to the polls. America’s elite was unable to work out a reasonable solution to the problem. There was no accepted procedure in place. There were no "wise men" prepared to mediate between the two camps.

America’s elite seems bent on self-destruction. Gore would never have been accepted as the winner of Florida based on selective recounts in four Democratic counties. He would never have been accepted as the winner of Florida on a count that only included the so-called "undervotes." He would never have been accepted as the winner of Florida on a count that included "dimpled chads," particularly if other counties refused to consider them. Similarly there was no way in the world George W. will be accepted the winner of an election in which he received fewer votes than his opponent. Nor will anyone ever believe that he won Florida.

America’s long-established institutions proved to be of little help. They only compounded the problem. The Florida Supreme Court’s intervention was particularly inane. Its first ruling, issued on November 21, extended the certification deadline. This served no purpose whatsoever since it did not allow enough time for the recounts. The Court could have allowed Secretary of State Katherine Harris to certify the election, as prescribed by the statute, thereby leaving plenty of time for the election contests. Second, it could have extended the certification deadline beyond November 26. Third, it could have ordered a statewide manual recount, which could easily have been completed by December 12.

The Florida Supreme Court ruling, issued on December 8, was even more absurd. It ordered a statewide recount, without explaining why it had failed to so in its earlier ruling. In the recount only the so-called "undervotes" would be counted. The "overvotes" evidently belong in the trash. No explanation for this bizarre double standard. The Court would allow each individual canvassing board to decide what counted as a vote. Most outrageously, the Court demanded that the votes counted for Gore in Miami-Dade County before the termination of the recount be added to his tally. But those votes were based on a full manual count, not just a count of the "undervotes." The remaining Miami-Dade precincts would only be allowed to count the "undervotes." Moreover, a in Miami-Dade a fairly permissive standard had been used as to what counted as a vote. Who knows what the new standard would now be?

In addition, as Florida Justice Major B. Harding, joined by Justice J. Leander Shaw argued: "Even if such [a statewide] recount were possible, speed would come at the expense of accuracy, and it would be difficult to put any faith or credibility in a vote total achieved under such chaotic conditions." But there were many other idiocies as well. As Michael McConnell pointed out in Slate: "Under the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, the initial decisions by the county boards…are given no legal weight. Instead, the judiciary takes upon itself the legal responsibility of deciding whether to conduct manual recounts, of conducting those recounts, and of certifying the winner…. Instead of a process in which both branches of government are involved – an initial determination by county executive officials followed by judicial review to ensure that their discretion has not been abused – the Florida Supreme Court adopted a procedure in which one branch of government, the judiciary, has sole discretion to decide all contested questions."

The Florida Supreme Court’s abysmal decision in turn provoked an absurd decision by the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court could have responded to Florida’s inanities in a number of ways. It could have simply ruled that the Florida results had been legally certified and there existed therefore no good reason for a manual recount. According to Florida law the only justification for a manual recount is failure of the voting machines to work properly. Since the machines did their job on Election Day, there was no need for any more counting. Alternatively, the Court could have sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court and demanded that it come up with a recount scheme that would ensure fairness – one in which all votes were counted and according to a single standard. If the Florida Court failed to meet the December 18 deadline, then it would have no one to blame but itself. Instead, the US Supreme Court came up with the silliest argument of all. There needed to be a manual recount but, alas, there was now no time for that. The Florida Legislature intended to obtain the so-called "safe-harbor" benefits of 3 U.S.C. Section 5 according to which its election results had to be certified at least six days before the meeting of the Electoral College. But the US Supreme Court had no business deciding this issue. It should have left it to others. The Florida legislature and the Florida courts can decide for themselves if they want to enjoy "safe harbor" benefits or not. The Florida Legislature could have picked its slate of electors. If the recount had gone Gore’s way, the Florida Supreme Court could have demanded that Secretary of State Harris certify a Gore slate of electors. And then it would have been up to the US Congress to decide whom to accept.

Moreover, the "equal protection" arguments the US Supreme Court arguments came up with will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects. Any voter who feels in some way shortchanged by the voting machine he uses or by the counting practice of his canvassing board will now have grounds to object to any election result he does not like. Indeed, it is hard to see how the Electoral College system can pass muster with this new "equal protection" doctrine. Clearly voters in California count for less than voters in Wyoming. According to Alan Brinkley in Slate, the Supreme Court could as easily have argued that voters who messed up their ballots in "Palm Beach County were denied equal protection; other Florida voters had clear and lucid ballots, and they did not. One could argue that the overseas military personnel who cast absentee ballots at military post offices that did not provide postmarks were denied equal protection when their votes were not counted; that Bush voters who did not vote on Election Day because the networks called Florida for Gore before the polls closed were denied equal protection."

It all goes to show that in this mad scramble for power everybody is jettisoning principles for the sake of getting their man into the White House. The conservative justices on the US Supreme Court endorse a doctrine of "equal protection" of extraordinary breadth and scope. The Florida Supreme Court, which in September had struck down an amendment to the state constitution, supported by 73 percent of the voters, designed to curb the Court’s power to prevent executions, has suddenly become a tribune of the people. (In its ruling, the Court had argued that the voters had been confused by the ballot language.) The New York Times, which is usually shrieking for Feds to strike down some local law or custom or court ruling, is now demanding that the US Supreme Court stay the hell out of internal Florida affairs. Bush won this election because the US Supreme Court secured it for him. Can one imagine the Supreme Court ruling the way it did on Tuesday had the situation been reversed, and it was George W. who was calling for a manual recount and Al Gore who was demanding an end to the recounts? Can one imagine the Florida Supreme Court ruling the way it did had it been Bush seeking a recount and Gore demanding that the Secretary of State’s certification be final?

A divided elite does not mean that the United States will not be throwing its weight around. To the contrary. This split can only be concealed by foreign adventures. President-elect George W. hinted as much in his acceptance speech: "Together we’ll have a bipartisan foreign policy true to our values and true to our friends, and we will have a military equal to every challenge and superior to every adversary." The Congressional Democrats will do everything in their power to embarrass Bush, ready themselves for taking over Capitol Hill in 2002 and then impeaching him. In the meantime, Gore will be waiting in the wings as the "People’s President." Bush’s longed-for "unity" will only come when the bombs start flying.

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