Let the spin cycle begin

As the recount continues, the pundits on both sides launch a vigorous public-relations battle.

By Eric Boehlert

Published November 10, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

It's time to play hardball.

The Florida recount controversy is far from over, and already the spin game has begun. Both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a protracted public-relations battle, fought mostly through the media, as they try to create a popular consensus -- or at least political cover -- for their presidential candidate.

With the gloves now off as partisans dash to their respective corners, the country may have to brace itself for what ratings-hungry cable-TV news producers could dub "Impeachment II": a deafening roar of political cross-talk

"Spinning is going to be very important," says Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action.

National Review's Washington editor Kate O'Beirne agreed with that sentiment. "Republicans must mount a counteroffensive on the public-relations front," she warned in a dispatch published on the conservative magazine's Web site late Thursday afternoon.

From the left, an ad hoc group of writers, activists and academics who support Vice President Al Gore have taken out an ad in Friday's New York Times. The ad urges "the Florida Election Commission to schedule and supervise new elections in Palm Beach County as soon as possible." According to one participant in the action, the advocacy ad is an attempt to protect Gore from political pressure to agree to a quick resolution to the recount question. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for People for the American Way says the liberal advocacy group "has no finalized plans for a [recount] media campaign" but is exploring several possible courses of action.

In Wednesday's Washington Post, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne planted a provocative seed about a Texas Gov. George W. Bush presidency, arguing that "in light of the questions now being raised by that weird Palm Beach ballot, how can any self-respecting Democratic partisan just sit by and let Bush take the White House and with it leadership of an all-Republican government in Washington?"

And New York Times columnist Bob Herbert stressed a similar point. "If the stories about voting irregularities in Florida continue, what little legitimacy Mr. Bush could have claimed will all but vanish," he wrote.

On the right, the immediate post-election spin was often muted and high-toned, reflecting conservatives' apparent confidence that Bush would easily win the Florida recount. An unsigned Thursday editorial in the normally brass-knuckled (and Clinton/Gore-hating) New York Post waxed poetic about how "America's leaders -- Republican and Democrat alike -- must get through this difficult period with civility and grace."

Expect that elevated tone to be dropped in exchange for bazookas in Friday's New York Post now that the Gore camp has signaled it will take legal action in Florida to contest the final vote count.

Also unnerving to GOP partisans was the sight of Pat Buchanan on NBC's "Today Show" Thursday morning. The Reform Party candidate addressed the controversy in Palm Beach County, where citizens complained they may have voted for the conservative third-party nominee by mistake. Said Buchanan: "It seems to me that these 3,000 votes people are talking about -- most of those are probably not my vote and that may be enough to give the margin to Mr. Gore."

Conservatives' ambivalence was voiced by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who counseled his listeners to maintain "wisdom and patience" when he signed on at noon Thursday. The problem, he said, was what he and his followers saw when they turned on the nonstop TV coverage. "We don't see anybody taking that view," he said. "We see people trying to influence minds of the general public. Instinctively, the impulse is to get in there and compete."

And it did not take long for Limbaugh to give those instincts free reign. "Liberals assume all the votes are theirs, that's how they play the game," he said. "Liberals are more cutthroat than they've ever been."

After Gore's campaign chairman William Daley held his press conference confirming a move toward the courts, Limbaugh told listeners, "Winning the contest is not the point. Al Gore wants to create political firestorm and utter chaos. He wants to put pressure on Bush to quit. He wants to [use] Bush's virtue against him. That's what liberals do."

Following Limbaugh on WABC in New York, host Sean Hannity drew parallels between the Florida mess and the impeachment issue -- and he undoubtedly won't be the only one to make that connection. "The Gore camp has declared war on this election," he said. "It's very similar to when they declared war against Ken Starr in the Monica Lewinsky mess."

Writing for the American Spectator, Byron York was also among the first of what will undoubtedly be many in the conservative press to belittle what he called Gore's "ferocious legal fight to challenge the results of the election. Gore sent a strong message: He'll respect the Constitution if the process leads to the result he wants. Otherwise, he'll sue. So the recount goes on, with no Gore assurance that he will abide by its results."

Tough language. But conservative writers have good reason to be cranky. On Election Day, York wrote a column predicting that Gore's Democratic Party was poised to suffer "a 1980s-style defeat."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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