Where are the Democratic fire-breathers?

Gore's party has been no match for the victory-or-death Republicans.

Published November 25, 2000 9:57PM (EST)

After eight years of relentless Republican guerrilla warfare aimed at crippling the Clinton administration, you would think the Democrats would have some pent-up anger and indignation to fuel their Election 2000 battle royale in Florida. From Whitewater to Travelgate to FBI filegate to Chinagate, the Republicans threw one bogus scandal after the next at the Clinton White House, culminating in the historic federal case they made out of a blow job.

But instead, once again, it's the GOP that has the fire in the belly, that wants to win back the White House in the worst way. GOP protesters in Florida have not just limited their actions to the streets, but have stormed the offices where ballots are being counted. As Broward County election officials counted hundreds of new ballots for Al Gore, the GOP unleashed its fury on a weary canvassing board there. One Republican observer threw a fit during the proceedings in the Broward County Courthouse and had to be removed. Meanwhile, a Republican on the board appeared to be deliberately slowing down the recount process by devoting excessive attention to each ballot.

The protest and delay tactics all seem part of a GOP strategy to sabotage the Florida recount, even though the hand count was sanctioned by the Florida Supreme Court. And the strategy is working. Intimidated by protests which threatened to turn into a riot, the election commission in Miami-Dade County cravenly halted its recount Wednesday.

The Republicans have also been winning the public relations war. While the Gore campaign has struggled to find high-ranking Democrats to argue its case before the TV cameras -- settling for retirees like George Mitchell, Mario Cuomo and Jimmy Carter -- the Republican Party has rallied loudly and proudly around their man. Montana's Republican governor, Marc Racicot, has pratically become a cable news fixture, extolling machines over human counters and decrying the supposed "disenfranchisement" of overseas military voters. He has been joined by such old impeachment hands as Rep. Asa Hutchison of Arkansas and by veterans like Bob Dole and Michigan Gov. John Engler, who went so far as to post themselves directly across from Democratic canvassers in Broward County.

With their omnipresent "Sore Loserman" placards and their full-throated charges of "election stealing," the Republicans have seized the momentum. This is a remarkable feat, given the facts on the ground that they have to work with. Their presidential candidate lost the nation's popular vote and in all likelihood the Florida vote as well. According to a New York Times report, George W. Bush's popular vote defeat has deeply distressed the GOP standard-bearer and he has all but retreated to his Texas ranch, where he whiles away his days reading a biography of Joe DiMaggio. Meanwhile, the party's vice presidential candidate was just released from a hospital after suffering his fourth heart attack; closely monitored by physicians and dependent on a long list of prescription drugs, he does not seem like a man ready for the rigors of his prospective job. And yet the Republican Party remains thoroughly united behind its ticket and ready to "go nuclear," in the phrase of the moment, to put its men in power.

Contrast this with the missing-in-action performance of their Democratic opponents. Not only has Gore's party failed to match the Republicans' intensity, it has been riven by talk of premature surrender. Two of the Democrats' most widely quoted leaders -- Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Torricelli of New Jersey -- have been busy floating the idea that Gore should prepare himself to concede. It is no surprise that these two gentlemen are eager to wave the white flag. Breaux's brand of politics is barely distinguishable from his Republican colleagues, and a Bush presidency would little disturb him. Torricelli, the Democrats' master fundraiser, is more interested in taking control of Congress in two years -- which he thinks a Gore defeat would help bring about -- so the New Jersey bagman can carve up Capitol Hill for his special-interest supporters.

But where is the rest of the Democratic Party? Where are the fire-breathers who helped save the Clinton presidency during the impeachment brawl -- the Barney Franks, Paul Wellstones, Barbara Boxers and Chuck Schumers? Party insiders point out that Gore is not beloved by Democrats on Capitol Hill, that liberals still resent him for his stands on trade and welfare reform. Liberals' lukewarm attitude toward Gore is understandable. It's hard for the party faithful to get excited about Gore-Lieberman-style centrism; the ticket's populist posturing during the campaign was far from convincing.

And the Gore team has hardly encouraged a Democratic answer to the GOP rabble-rousers. Gore's uneasy attitude toward his party's left wing was on full display during the Jesse Jackson-led protests in Florida. The vice president's team made it plain to the media that it did not fully support Jackson's street politics, and Jackson's troops have now faded from the scene. Contrast this once again with the frenzied Cuban-Americans and Republican shock troops who have swept from county to county in Florida. The Bush campaign has done nothing to distance itself from their actions, even when these protesters invaded government buildings. In fact, according to the New York Times, these demonstrators' expenses are being paid for by the GOP.

But it shouldn't take Democrats much to rouse themselves to full battle mode. (At a minimum, the party should gird itself to fight for a complete hand tally in the contested counties, including a resumption of the aborted count in Miami-Dade.) All Democrats have to do is recall how it felt to be out of power after 12 years of Reagan-Bush rule. This is what it took for the party to unite itself behind Clinton-Gore in '92. The faces may be jowlier nowadays and the hair whiter, but many of those same Republican opponents, such as James Baker, are again locked in mortal combat with them in Florida. If that's not enough for Democrats to put on their full metal jackets, they don't deserve to win this year's presidential battle.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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2000 Elections Al Gore Democratic Party George W. Bush Republican Party