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Let’s lower the rhetoric, please

November 13, 2000

Jeff Greenfield, the CNN analyst, has been warning about the lack of “dispassion” in political commentary on the Florida presidential vote. He is putting it mildly. This delicate moment in our political history is an excellent time for restraint, but here is some of the rhetoric we have been getting:

Votes have been “unlawfully set aside” (Jack Quinn, Gore adviser); “Voters were taken advantage of” (First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams); voting incorrectly “was my mistake, however my vote was stolen” (Palm Beach voter Lora Ide); “This may be an injustice unparalleled in our history” (Gore campaign manager William Daley); “Somebody has been tampering with the process” (the Rev. Jesse Jackson); “We are talking about voter suppression” (Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Alas, most of this is the passive language of victimization that comes so easily to the tongue these days, particularly to tongues on the left. Even the clearest acknowledgment of a personal error in voting (“that was my mistake”) is smoothly followed by conventional victim rhetoric (“however my vote was stolen”).

Ms. Ide said: “I’m college-educated. I am not stupid. And I’m not elderly. I’m 52.” She must know that the Palm Beach ballot was prepared by a Democratic Party official, approved by the state bureaucracy in Tallahassee, published in local newspapers, and mailed in advance to her and all registered voters. All voters were told they could ask for help if confused, and they could request a second ballot if they felt that had mismarked the first one.

Yes, in retrospect the ballot might have been better designed, but this was the one drawn up and agreed upon with no noticeable protest on any side. No ballot is perfectly clear, but the state seems to have followed the law and gone to a lot of trouble to explain things to Ms. Ide and to offer help. In what sense was her vote stolen?

Voters make mistakes. Older voters make more mistakes than younger ones, which may account for the fact that 10,000 Palm Beach presidential ballots were left totally blank. But only a highly developed grievance culture would convert balloting errors into a charge that voters were “taken advantage of” in “an injustice unparalleled in our history.”

The increased use of words like “stolen” and “illegal,” which appear regularly on posters flashed behind TV reporters, raise the emotional pitch at a dangerous time. William Daley virtually declared that the presidential election will be illegitimate if Gore doesn’t win. “If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president,” he said.

In response, an editorial in The Washington Post, which had endorsed Gore, said this: “A Bush victory would mean that the White House had been stolen; that was the plain meaning of (Daley’s) remark. It’s a poisonous thing to say in these extraordinary and unsettling circumstances.

The words “awarded” and “will of the people” are just as disturbing. “Awarding” the White House must mean trumping the actual vote count somewhere, perhaps in the Electoral College or perhaps by finagling the Florida numbers so that Gore comes out ahead. “Will of the people” is even scarier. The political terms “will” and “popular will” have a long track record in Western history going back to Rousseau. That record is profoundly anti-democratic, essentially inviting elites to interpret what the common people believe and want. In litigious modern America, that would be a judicial elite telling us how we meant to vote or should have voted.

Complaints about the voting in Florida have taken on the trappings of a political campaign, complete with rallies and speeches. This is an odd development. What is the function of a post-election political campaign? Perhaps it is merely to build public acceptance for judicial intervention.

But more troubling political scenarios are now circulating. One, set forth by Newsweek and MSNBC commentator Jonathan Alter, has Gore losing in Florida and in the Electoral College, but calling on Bush to yield the presidency because he lost in the popular vote. Yes, it’s far-fetched. Besides, we don’t know yet who won the popular vote. Gore is 200,000 ahead, but several million absentee ballots haven’t been counted yet in West Coast states.

Another scenario, a bit more plausible, has Gore litigating the Florida results long enough that the state’s 25 electoral votes couldn’t count for either side when the Electoral College voting takes place on Dec. 18. That way Gore could win.

Would Gore do anything like this? I can’t believe it. He is an honorable man, and a presidency achieved by creating a constitutional crisis wouldn’t be worth having. But improbable scenarios are circulating because of the ugly political atmosphere created by a virtual dead heat and the trouble in Florida. The Gore people should think twice about tying up this election in court. The Bush team should back off, too — the naming of a few would-be Bush appointees was an aggressive act. So was the call for Gore to concede before the absentee ballots are counted. The obvious is true: We need caution and lowered voices.

From → Media, Politics

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