Gridlock and its discontents
by Seth Gitell
McCain electrified the electorate with his hundreds of town meetings and trounced Bush in New Hampshire. Bradley, meanwhile, gave Gore a run for his money with his steady concentration on health care and campaign-finance reform. But then came South Carolina, where Bush showed he was no "uniter"; in fact, he was a "divider." First, Bush went to the racist, anti-Catholic, paleo-conservative Bob Jones University. Then there were the mysterious phone calls that warned evangelical voters about Warren Rudman, a McCain ally. Other Bush pals, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, recorded anti-McCain phone messages. Bush's allies even accused McCain of abandoning veterans. In the end, GOP activists and religious conservatives united to destroy the most interesting candidate the Republicans had offered in at least two decades.
It's still a mystery why voters bought the lies and innuendo. But then, it's a mystery why we buy the new offerings from General Mills, Nabisco, and Kellogg's when we've already got about 150 cereals clogging our grocery aisles. The fact is, most people believe what they read and hear, even if it's a lie. I'd like to believe that had the voters been more informed and engaged, they wouldn't have made Bush the GOP presidential candidate. But most likely, South Carolina voters broke the way they did for regional reasons: the South wants rock-solid conservatives in the White House, not quixotic reformers, even if the rock-solid conservative in tow is a lightweight daddy's boy. Even that doesn't explain why Bush's disgraceful actions in South Carolina didn't become a major issue during the general campaign, as most reporters and political observers believed they would. Again, the culprit had to be an uninformed and disengaged electorate.
If voters were disgusted by this year's hotly contested presidential campaign, they haven't seen anything yet.
During the Clinton administration, conservatives argued that the Democratic presidency was illegitimate because Clinton had won only a plurality - not a majority - of the 1992 vote. If Bush wins the electoral-college vote, which may very well happen, Democratic arguments against his "victory" will carry more weight, given that (as this paper goes to press) Gore likely won the popular vote. If that proves to be the case, the next four years will be even worse - no matter which candidate is declared the winner.
Already the Democrats are laying the foundation to challenge a Bush presidency should the Texas governor win the election. NBC pundit Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek writer who is close to the Gore camp, began clamoring to overturn the electoral college on NBC early Wednesday morning. Alter stridently challenged the deans of NBC News - Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw - on the legitimacy of the electoral college. Brokaw and Russert argued that both candidates had already agreed to the rules that govern the election. "They didn't agree to an election in dispute," said Alter.
Key to Alter's analysis is the case of Palm Beach, where, because of a mysterious ballot anomaly, about 3500 Floridians - some of whom were elderly Jews who came of age during the Second World War, according to Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida) - cast votes for Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Gore. The Democratic National Committee, accordingly, is dispatching some 100 lawyers to Florida to investigate voting irregularities. Adding to the bitterness is the fact that Florida is presided over by a key duke of the Bush dynasty, Governor Jeb Bush.
One thing to watch as the post-election battle intensifies is the various strategies the Democrats will employ to overturn a Bush electoral-college victory. Remember the impeachment struggle? The Democrats are better at these extra-normal political battles. If combat ensues, the events of November 7 will never end.
The cynicism merely intensified with the conventions. The Republican National Convention in Philadelphia set a high-water mark for disingenuousness with its touchy-feely trade show for a product it wasn't selling. Former Massachusetts state representative Andrew Card orchestrated a magnificent multicultural parade to show Americans that the Republicans were a different kind of political party and that George W. Bush was a "very different kind of conservative." The Republicans called upon an adorable Latina girl with a powerful voice to sing the national anthem, and coined corny slogans for each night of their convention - "Leave no child behind," "Safe in our homes and the world," and "Prosperity with a purpose."
Never mind the corporate wingdings sponsored by Philip Morris and US Tobacco; never mind the convention seats reserved for big-money donors instead of party activists. Rather than becoming a party of ideas, a party that could go toe-to-toe with Clintonism, the Republicans turned back into what they always are in times of plenty - the tax-cut/fat-cat party. Many observers, myself included, were appalled. But the GOP stage-managed its convention better than the most elaborate Broadway production, and the public didn't seem to see anything wrong with it. Bush's poll numbers rose.
The Democratic convention was just as bad. It didn't seem to register with the public that the Democratic Party nominated one of Hollywood's biggest critics to serve in its number-two spot just as Hollywood celebrities were preparing their big-donor bashes. Actually, it didn't seem to register with the moneybags in Hollywood, either. As LA celebrities warmed to Lieberman, the Connecticut senator quickly relinquished the policy stances that made him unique - on affirmative action, school vouchers, Social Security reform. For all the perceived excitement in Los Angeles - the kiss, Gore's strong convention speech - a campaign that would speak to the nation, and not just to senior citizens on Social Security and middle-class families with college-age children, failed to materialize.
At any point, the public could have changed all this. Voters - those citizens who participate in focus groups and actually answer pollsters' phone calls - could have stopped responding to the candidates' audacious pandering. But any hope that these people would demand a real campaign evaporated with the debates. During the first debate, in Boston, a combative Gore demonstrated control of the issues. Yet the public gave the win to Bush: apparently, a Simple Simon approach appealed to the voters. During the second debate, when Gore excoriated Bush for using his budget surplus in Texas on a tax cut for the wealthy as opposed to health care for poor children, I thought he'd scored a home run. But the public didn't see it that way. All the voters seemed to care about was that Gore's demeanor in this debate was entirely different.
It's hard to say what caused this disconnect. At the risk of sounding elitist - I know, too late - I'd say the voting public's reaction to the debates makes sense only if we assume that most voters know nothing about national issues. We live in a country where you can find detail-laden Web sites about the most arcane subject - kung fu movies, '70s-era cartoon shows, obscure pop music. But in one recent NBC News report, prospective voters could more easily identify Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken than either of the two presidential candidates. And when you have a public more familiar with Colonel Sanders than Vice-President Gore, it becomes easier to understand why the public would give Bush (Clinton sans brains) more debate points than Gore (Clinton sans charm). Maybe the electoral college can vote for Colonel Sanders to break the deadlock.
The home stretch saw both candidates repeat poll-driven sound bites. By early November, Gore's campaign had become one big Social Security fetish. It made for a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch, but not for such a great presidential-campaign effort. As late as the Friday before the election, Gore - bereft of the pseudo-populist packaging he'd appropriated at convention time - was falling back on the great battle to preserve Social Security. His campaign actually sent around an e-mail to be forwarded to "10 undecided voters" that focused exclusively on what the Gore camp sees as the defining question of our day: "What are Bush's plans for Social Security?"
The question of Social Security, to be sure, is complex and important. But what can be said about a campaign with no greater vision than keeping Social Security in a lock box? How is such a campaign supposed to excite the passions of broad masses of Americans or help to reinvigorate the system? The short answer is that it can't. But Gore had backed himself into a corner. In his steadfast refusal to campaign with Clinton, the vice-president made a very clear statement about his relationship with the president. By doing so, however, he removed himself from the larger issues - defending the Clinton legacy or defending the policies of the administration that he himself was a part of for eight years.
The cautious, one-dimensional Bush, in turn, never articulated any idea that required more than one-, or two-, or (on rare occasions) three-syllable sound bites. When in doubt about a complex policy issue, Bush tried to split the difference by creating his own infantile mumbo-jumbo. Rather than restating the conservative position opposing affirmative action or boldly embracing affirmative action, for example, Bush split the difference by saying he supported "affirmative access."
There's an old adage that says, "When the people lead, the leaders will follow." In a perverse way, that's surely what happened in this election. In campaign 2000, a disengaged, uninformed, and uninterested public got the result it deserved. Remember that when the public starts bitching about the razor-thin election result.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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