The good news for Republicans is that we won by a hair -- or came within a hair of winning, depending on whether Democrats succeed in their campaign to subvert the result. In a year of economic boom and relative peace and running against an administration that registered 60 percent approval with the American public, this was nothing short of a political miracle. Republicans should be grateful to George W. Bush and his campaign chief, Karl Rove, for crafting a disciplined and strategically shrewd campaign, which was based on a message of "compassionate conservatism" and made deep inroads into traditional Democratic constituencies and states. Republicans should also congratulate themselves for maintaining a united coalition. If the Buchanan Reform Party had drawn as many votes from Bush as the Nader Greens did from Democrats, Al Gore would be president.
The bad news for Republicans is that half the American people voted for 285 new federal programs, billions in new taxes and the largest projected expansion of the federal budget since the Great Society. The Republicans' victory was barely achieved against a campaign that was badly run by a leader who was widely perceived to lack character and integrity, who was vice president in the most corrupt and disgraced administration in history and who himself broke election laws, lied to federal investigators and seemed compulsive in his inability to stay close to the facts.
The bad news is that half the nation voted for a party that is fierce in its defense of racial preferences and partial-birth abortions, and that is firm in its belief that the U.S. Constitution is an outdated and bigoted document that needs to be rewritten to accord with the party's own left-wing agendas. Thus, in a speech to "energize" his African-American base, Gore attacked Bush for promising he would appoint Supreme Court justices who adhered to the text of the Constitution. Said Gore: "I often think of the strictly constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being." Of course those people were slaves, not (as Gore implied) African-Americans as such; slavery is, of course, outlawed by the Constitution to which Bush was referring and the Three-Fifths Compromise was proposed by anti-slavery framers who wanted to diminish the electoral power of the slave-owning South.
Unfortunately, the negative lesson of the election result is one that many Republicans either do not understand or do not want to face. Two weeks before the vote, two of the brightest editors at the National Review criticized the strategy of "compassionate conservatism" with which Bush was challenging Democrats for the political center: "If Mr. Bush wins, it will not be because of his personality, compassionate or otherwise. It will be because America remains, in crucial respects, a conservative country that wants energetic conservative leaders."
This can hardly be the case in the sense the authors seem to mean it. Gore ran a campaign well to the left of the American political center -- too far to the left, according to liberal critics in his own party. If Americans were conservative in the authors' sense, they would have roundly rejected Gore's populist appeal.
The expectations of a comfortable margin that Republicans had going into the election were defeated by higher voter turnout than anyone predicted. The cause of this difference was a fact that Republicans better recognize: The days of Democratic complacency, which produced low turnout and made possible the 1994 Gingrich "revolution" and takeover of the House, also ended with that defeat. Having been taken by surprise and knocked off their perch, Democrats will not soon again make the mistake of taking victory for granted.
Until now, all Republican strategies -- whether of the left wing of the party or the right -- have depended on expectations of low voter turnout. Every election cycle, Republicans regularly pray for bad weather and hope that voter apathy will depress the Democrats' big-city turnouts. This election should provide a clear signal to Republicans that they can no longer lean on this crutch. Democratic complacency cannot be relied on to achieve their victories for them. If they don't aggressively woo new constituencies, they will remain a minority party.
The reasons are imprinted in the electoral landscape. Democrats enjoy overwhelming majorities in large urban centers and an electoral edge in "urban" states with large metropolitan populations -- New York, California and Pennsylvania are obvious examples. By contrast, the Republican base is mainly suburban and rural.
Democrats also enjoy a formidable advantage in their ability to wage the "ground war" of electoral contests -- to turn out their base. Democrats draw this ground strength from three related sources: 1) The big-city constituencies that are principally liberal; 2) a passion for power that is expressed in their message and rooted in their blood; and 3) the special-interest vanguards that shape their message and possess the resources to turn out their troops. These vanguards are labor unions and leftist crusade groups -- racial agitators, abortion-rights feminists, gun-controllers and environmental zealots.
In order to win future elections, Republicans will have to develop strategies like "compassionate conservatism" to sell their message to the American center, and to make inroads into the Democratic base. As the Bush campaign has shown, the conservative core of the Republican Party is already moving in that direction. That is why Republicans were able to hold their coalition together and avoid the kind of fractional split that weakened the Democrats in the campaign.
While Republicans are learning to run to the center, however, centripetal forces among Democrats are pushing in the opposite direction. Already Gore has been hammered by critics for running an unfocused campaign that was often too far to the left of the spectrum. It has been argued that Gore should have attached himself more consistently to the Clinton prosperity and the Clinton political record, while putting distance between himself and the man. Analyses like this make the problem appear to be Gore as a person rather than forces that may lie beyond his control. But what if the real culprit is the Democratic Party and its core constituencies instead?
Gore, after all, is a calculating and experienced political operator. He undoubtedly has agendas that are more ideological than Clinton's, but he has kept them in check when necessary before. If, in this campaign, he has veered more to the left than he has in the past, it is more than likely that there were political reasons for making that choice. One was evident in the Nader result. This was a problem Gore tried to deal with throughout the election, and which he ultimately could not bring under control. If he had dropped his populist rhetoric and run hard to the center, as his critics suggest he should have, how much would Nader's percentage have grown? And against a centrist campaign like Bush's, how many independents could he have picked up to balance the deficit Nader would have created?
A second consideration for Gore was that the Democratic Party has increasingly become a party of the left. This fact has been obscured in the last eight years by the triangulating successes of the leader whose time is now passing. While President Clinton was busy misbehaving in his personal life, he was also busily at work making his party behave in its political course. Only a self-absorbed individual and superlative tactician like Clinton could have embraced core Republican policies (welfare reform and balanced budgets) and then imposed them on the party to force it into the American center.
But Clinton is history and Gore his own man. He lacks Clinton's political skills and probably his sociopathic tendencies as well. That has brought the Democratic Party's more radical character bubbling to the political surface. It was Gore's populist call to the Democratic Convention that brought his party home, put his campaign in sync and bumped his polls to winning heights. Prominent among the faces on the convention podium were those who represented the organizational keys to Gore's nomination and eventually to the turnout that carried him through. One of these was the leadership of the government unions who are philosophically socialist and politically dedicated to expanding the big government empire of the welfare state. An equally important presence was provided by the generals of the party's African-American divisions -- there is no other term adequate to describe a group that votes 90 percent Democratic (93 percent in Florida). These leaders -- left-wing to the core -- provided the most inflammatory propaganda offensives throughout the campaign and then, in its denouement, the shock troops of the attempt at a post-election coup.
Even by the standards of American campaigns, the effort by African-American leaders to scare the living daylights out of African-American voters (and credulous liberals) was extreme. In the African-American air war, Republicans were accused of covert racism and sympathy for hate crimes. Bush, their standard-bearer, was singled out as a man who took pleasure in executing unjustly sentenced African-Americans in the state of Texas. In one horrific TV ad worthy of Joseph Goebbels, NAACP propagandists re-created a lynching and presented the victim's daughter accusing Bush of killing her father "a second time."
How effective were these slanders? In 1998, Bush won 30 percent of the African-American vote in Texas in his run for governor. Two years later, in the wake of these slanders, that figure was reduced to 5 percent.
In the ground war, African-American leaders used traditional forms of political chicanery, offering $3 a head to black pastors for every potential Democrat they registered. But they invented new ones as well, trolling the nation's jails and homes for the aged to round up support for the Democratic slate. In specious pronouncements calculated for maximum prejudice, they declared that long-standing laws to take away the voting privileges of felonious criminals were examples of old-fashioned racism -- a conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks on the basis of skin color and, therefore, a "civil rights" cause.
This reprehensible campaign of racial distortion, exploiting the themes of victimization, has now reached its climax in the effort to subvert the election result. Among the first to launch the assault on Florida's polls was Jesse Jackson, who arrived trailing images of the segregated American past. On behalf of the Gore campaign, Jackson claimed that African-Americans in Palm Beach County had been denied their franchise much the same as their parents had been 40 years before. A ballot had been designed to confuse voters -- specifically to fool Gore supporters into voting for Pat Buchanan. In all, 19,000 ballots had been destroyed by officials because the ruse was so successful and the hopelessly confused had actually voted twice. Of course, in the 1996 presidential elections, which had a lower voter turnout, a comparable 15,000 ballots had been similarly destroyed by Florida officials. But now that the hornets' nest of suspicion had been stirred, such rational explanations cut no ice.
The African-American divisions of the Democratic Party claimed, moreover, that it was impossible that Buchanan could even get the 3,000-plus votes that he did in a county with such a large African-American population. Utterly racist statements were marshaled behind this bogus claim, such as Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings' declaration that no African-American could ever vote for Buchanan. Of course Buchanan's running mate, Ezola Foster, is an African-American woman. But a racial demagogue like Hastings could hardly be fazed by a fact like that. In 1996 Buchanan got 8,000-plus votes in a Republican primary in the same county. Moreover, in the present election cycle there were 16,000 registered members of Buchanan's various parties (Reform, Independent) in Palm Beach County, who could easily have accounted for his total.
It was quickly established that the "confusing" ballot in question was designed by a Democrat official. And all the officials in control of the electoral system in Palm Beach County, a Democratic stronghold, are Democrats. In fact, as the local Democratic official in charge of the ballot explained to the press, the "confusing" design was an attempt to increase the size of the print on the ballot so that older people could read it. Moreover, when the ballot had been distributed before the vote -- and up to the time that Florida's result became an issue -- no Democrat had complained. Nonetheless, Bill Daley, the chief of Gore's campaign, charged that the ballot design was illegal. One of the legion of lawyers mobilized by Gore to descend on the state confirmed Daley's charge. But the same ballot design is used in Daley's home state of Illinois, which turned out a majority for Gore.
Additionally, there are questions that no one seems to be able to raise out loud: If a voter cannot tell the difference between two holes on a ballot that are clearly marked, how can they tell the difference between the candidates for president? Who are these people (both black and white) who voted twice anyway? How competent are they to make up their own minds? Did they make up their own minds or were they led to the polls by the $3 bounty hunters?
These are not idle concerns. In Milwaukee, Democrats scoured the streets in search of homeless people to drag to the polls. The volunteers from this voting pool, made up largely of psychotics and substance abusers, were enticed by their Democratic handlers to come along to the polling booth by an offer of free cigarettes. (What an index of the cynical sewer into which the "anti-big-tobacco" party descends when a vote is at stake!) If Democrats are willing to raid the jails and recruit the homeless to elect their ticket, what incompetence, malignancy or infirmity will they not bring to the polls to wrestle with the complexities of butterfly ballots? Perhaps some disgruntled voters were genuinely confused, but perhaps there were others who were mentally non compos or couldn't even read the text beyond recognizing the name that their abettors provided? Who knows? Or will ever know?
In 1960, Jack Kennedy was elected with less than a majority of the popular vote. There was clear evidence that the ballot boxes in Chicago had been stuffed by minions in the employ of the late father of Gore's present campaign manager, putting the crucial vote of Illinois over the top. Though he believed he had won, Richard Nixon refused to challenge the result of the vote. Such a challenge would have been too damaging to the country he loved.
At the end of election night in this campaign, the Florida vote was automatically going to be recounted anyway, under the laws of the state. Gore might have said: "The vote is so close that there is going to be a recount mandated by law. Because the result of an election provides the legitimacy for the new administration, and that legitimacy is the foundation of our civil peace, I think it would be prudent for me to wait on the recount to concede this election. That way all Americans will recognize the result, and that it is what our democracy is all about."
But Gore did not say this. Instead he unleashed the dogs of political war on Palm Beach County. He allowed the Jackson arsonists to rush in to inflame the passions of social hysteria, to recklessly sow bitter doubts about the process itself that no one can now allay. He allowed the chief of his campaign to suggest that the Constitution be overthrown so that the popular vote would prevail -- because that was "morally" more right than letting the Electoral College decide. He launched a partisan and enormously dangerous campaign to undermine the very process that keeps the nation united, and that alone can make the next administration a government of us all.
In launching this destructive action, Gore poured the corrosive acid of suspicion and distrust on an already fraying body politic, and showed in one reckless decision during a moment of crisis that he is not fit to be president of these United States.