Harsh lessons

How the drug war cost Al Gore African-American votes in Florida.

By Bruce Shapiro

Published November 9, 2000 9:00AM (EST)

As I write, it is less than 24 hours after Vice President Al Gore did something new in two centuries of presidential elections: He un-conceded.

Twelve hours have brought no clarity to the outcome. Gore remains marginally ahead in the national popular vote. Gov. George W. Bush maintains a lead of fewer than 1,750 votes in Florida, upon which rest the outcome of the Electoral College. Hours ago, the Florida secretary of state released the results of recounts in 19 of the state's 67 counties. The result: Gore gains 238 votes; Bush 205.

It is too soon -- perhaps days too soon -- to predict where this is going, the final tally of votes reallocated from error or struck for fraud, the overseas absentees. But it is not too soon to say that the electoral gridlock of the last 24 hours is a clear prophecy of more tumult to come.

A country that is supposed to be fat and prosperous and complacent suddenly appears to be hunkering down for months of rancorous contention, regardless of who wins the Florida recount. The Senate is now evenly divided, and Republicans retained (but saw narrowed) their control of the House. Gore and Bush electoral victories are so sharply apportioned between Democratic coastal and industrial states and a Republican heartland that the charts broadcast Tuesday night by every television screen resembled a Civil War territorial map.

Under such pressures, what are normally marginal notes to the political process -- the Ralph Nader vote, the routine precinct-level voter fraud surfacing in Florida -- suddenly take on outsized resonance. And the fate of a single senator -- whether dying Strom Thurmond or already dead Sen.-elect Mel Carnahan -- will fundamentally change the dynamic of Washington.

(Which is why there is undoubtedly a special place in Democratic hell awaiting Joe Lieberman, who insisted on running for reelection to his Connecticut Senate seat. On the campaign trail Lieberman sang "I did it my way," but his real motto was "Looking out for No. 1." Should Gore win, Lieberman's replacement gets named by a Republican governor -- and that Republican replacement will bestow a Republican majority, shifting the political calculus on everything from budgets to Supreme Court nominations.)

How did Florida end up the epicenter of such an extraordinary political earthquake? It's easy enough to point to "the Nader factor," which already has liberals devouring each other alive in a feast of rage.

But for the sake of their long-term prospects, Democrats might choose to look in a more productive direction: Florida's extraordinarily high rate of so-called "felony disenfranchisement" -- the lifelong barring of ex-offenders from voting. More than one-third of Florida's adult African-American males were legally prevented from participating in this week's election because of past contact with the state's criminal justice system. And one-third of the male members of an African-American community is a total utterly central to Gore's success.

The irony, of course, is that Gore has been a prime mover of harsh criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. So is his chief Florida patron and vote-tally advisor, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was elected to office in 1988 by promising that the Sunshine State could "build the way" out of crime with harsher sentences and more prisons.

Now Gore and Butterworth are fighting to maintain the narrowest of margins, in which the votes of those ex-offenders and recovered drug abusers could have been part of a plurality which would have made Nader's low-single-digits returns dwindle into historic insignificance.

One of the other hidden ironies of this election is that, whatever the Florida recount's outcome, Gore's campaign appears to be a stunning repudiation of the very electoral strategy promoted for years by the Democratic Leadership Council, the New Democrat think tank of which not only Gore himself but Lieberman and President Clinton are central figures.

It was an intellectual policy movement -- I remember a few years ago sitting in Joe Lieberman's office, listening (as a reporter) to him extol the virtues of privatized Social Security -- but it was mostly tactical. For years, New Democrats like Gore had one premise: to win national elections by pitching their party to socially conservative, largely male, largely Southern traditional Democrats whose swing to George Wallace in 1968 cost Hubert Humphrey the presidency -- and who were later reincarnated as "Reagan Democrats" in the 1980s.

But this year, the lessons of 1968 seem stunningly obsolete. Gore's popular-vote majority came disproportionately from African-Americans, unions and women, as every exit poll showed. If Gore becomes president it will be not because of his centrism but in spite of it. Not because of the South, but without it. Not because of Reagan Democrats, but because of Jesse Jackson Democrats and John Sweeney Democrats.

Though Gore may be a strange messenger, the message was clear. In an election between inner-city church buses and suburban tax-write-off SUVs, the church buses seem to have pulled off a narrow popular majority for Gore. At the same time Gore seemed to understand little about broader ethnic politics. One Democratic strategist who spent years nurturing white ethnic constituencies spoke to me with immense frustration of Gore's neglect of that base. Irish-American Democrats, for instance, had to drag Gore kicking and screaming into making a strong statement on Northern Ireland -- even though the Bush family is famously Anglophilic in foreign policy, and the Northern Ireland peace deal counts as one of Bill Clinton's few foreign-policy success stories.

There was a Bush equivalent too. The hard social-conservative right -- the NRA, the anti-abortion lobby, the Christian Coalition -- were nearly invisible in the closing weeks of his campaign. Instead, Bush placed singular emphasis -- through his tax and Social Security policies, his anti-environmental proposals, his school-voucher plans -- on the property-rights, free-market brand of conservatism that seems sure to get pride of place in his administration.

Those very issues played out before the Supreme Court the day before Election Day in an unintended commentary on the stakes at the polls. Lawyers for coal companies and other industries appeared before the court to challenge the constitutionality of the Clean Air Act, saying that the act's public-health imperatives ought to be bound by a cost-benefit analysis.

Finally, it was unavoidable that the extraordinary events of Tuesday night would prove uniquely illuminating of each candidate's biography. For the Bush clan gathered in Austin, Texas, there was a sort of re-creation of those happy days in Kennebunkport -- W. seated in front of the television beside his mother, looking oddly diminished in the company of his father's more lanky Yankee frame to her left. There was, clearly, a special agony in the sort of politicus interruptus of the evening: the redemption of the earlier Bush presidency delayed, perhaps derailed.

But the lurching election results revealed the most about Gore. His decision at 2 a.m. to place a concession call to Bush with the Florida vote so narrow, and key Democratic counties not reporting, looks increasingly like an attack of weak knees. It might have been an internal conflict borne, on the one hand, of his years of standing aloof in the Senate and White House and the rolling-and-tumbling of ward-level politics -- and, on the other, from his career-long desire to avoid his father's famously fatal error of seeming too bold.

It is hard to imagine Clinton making the same mistake -- not out of any particular genius but because of his governor's sense of how just one ballot box or precinct can shift an election. It took a bare-knuckles Florida pol, Butterworth, to put his foot in the door.

Despite the surge of public interest as the presidential race closed, the closeness of this election remains a reflection of despair rather than enthusiasm. Voters seesawed between two singularly unappealing candidates who endlessly evaded such central issues as the global economy and the drug war.

It will be another 12, 24, 48 hours until Florida's votes are tallied and the precinct frauds, real or imagined, are accounted for. But the very absence of any result has ripped open the suffocating consensus that made this election such a chore. Voters who thought they had cast their votes casually or with disdain for the candidates found themselves, in Wednesday morning's early hours, biting their nails or plummeting into depression.

Presidential victories are typically presented as a time to unite the country, as both Bush and Gore promised Wednesday. And in a few days or weeks, politics might seem to return to normal. But from the deep divisions and anxieties revealed by this nerve-wracking conclusion there will be no going back.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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Al Gore George W. Bush