THE DISPUTE SURROUNDING the 2000 presidential election should have been over in the days immediately following the vote, when a legally mandated machine recount foundfor the second timethat George W. Bush had won. Barring that, it should have been over five weeks later, when the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to Al Gore’s efforts to rig a manual recount in four of Florida’s most heavily Democratic counties. And it certainly should have been over in January, when President George W. Bush’s inauguration made the entire squabble moot.
But the controversy never died at any of those occasions, and it’s not about to die now, either, despite the media analysis of uncounted ballots that found Bush, once again, to be the winner. While Democratic operatives are holding their fire for the time being, there’s little doubt that come 2004especially if Gore is their candidatewe will once more hear about the "selected, not elected" president.
Former Clinton moneyman and current Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe made clear in his February acceptance speech that as long as he’s at the helm, election 2000 will remain a key Democratic rallying point. "You know this," he told his party faithful, "if Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush, Jim Baker and the Supreme Court hadn’t tampered with the results, Al Gore would be president, George Bush would be back in Austin, and John Ashcroft would be home reading Southern Partisan magazine."
Today, he sounds a less belligerent tone. With the nation at war and its commander-in-chief buoyed by massive popular support, McAuliffe knows better than publicly to denounce Bush as a pretender to the throne. In response to the latest recount, McAuliffe remarked, "I have consistently said, George Bush has been sworn in. We all support him. We support him now more than ever."
Supporting the president in a time of war, however, is very different from saying he was rightfully elected. And it’s no accident that McAuliffe chose to say that Bush "has been sworn in," and not that he won. Nor has he taken back his uninformed February remarks, which have since been proved conclusively wrong.
For all his talk of "supporting" Bush, McAuliffe continues to hang on to the stolen-election theory. "If you counted all the overvotes," he quipped, "they say that Vice President Gore would have won."
That may be true, but it’s also irrelevant.
Back during the five-week post-election legal battle, no one, neither the Gore campaign nor the Florida Supreme Court, called for a tally of the overvotes (ballots that showed markings for more than one candidate) because discerning the voter’s true intent would have been prohibitively difficult and legally untenable. They asked only for a manual recount of the so-called undervotes, ballots that machines read as denoting no candidate whatsoever. And the media’s survey has found that under any undervote recountstatewide or in Gore’s selected counties only, loose standards or strictGore still would have lost.
All of which goes to show that election 2000 was not ultimately decided by Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush, Jim Baker or the U.S. Supreme Court, but by Florida voters. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t overturned the Florida Supreme Court’s ordered recount, Bush would still be president.
In other words, election 2000 should be, once again, over. But Democrats are holding on to the politically useful myth of Gore’s denied presidency so that they can bring it back as a weapon in 2004facts be damned.
Following the announcement of the media’s analysis, Gore issued a magnanimous-sounding press release, suggesting that he was ready, as Democrats liked to say during the Clinton impeachment battle, to move on. "As I said on Dec. 13th of last year, we are a nation of laws and the presidential election of 2000 is over. And of course, right now, our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush’s efforts to achieve that goal."
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Clinton years, it’s that the words of Clintonites must be parsed very carefully. Gore’s press release proves it.
Noting that the election is over is merely to state the old and the obvious. True magnanimity would have been for Gore to admit that he lost it. Instead, Gore chose to say only that "we are a nation of laws," not that the law is just, or that Bush won the White House fair and square.
Gore, who has been spending an inordinate amount of time giving speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire lately, knows that the charge of Bush’s ill-begotten victory resonates with his party base. He won’t give up such an effective campaign ploy that easily.
For Democratic partisans, the theory that Bush "stole" the presidency, or that it was conferred upon him by a vast, right-wing Supreme Court conspiracy, is an article of faith. As such, it’s not subject to reason or open to negotiation. Contradictory evidence is merely a trifling inconvenience best left ignored.
The dispute surrounding the 2000 election is far from over. The Democratic Party is the party of victims, and the newly bearded Gore remains its victim-in-chief.