In Praise of the Florida Circus
Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris -- the next vice-president of the United States. Hold that thought; I'll return to it in a moment.
Pardon my flippant attitude toward the future of the republic, but the flummox in Florida has been wonderful entertainment. It was fun to watch a national soap opera that did not involve sex or grisly murder (at least not yet).
True, the affair has had its educational component. Will any voter ever again blithely cast a vote and not wonder whether the system truly records his or her choices? Can anyone still believe that electoral reform is not urgently needed or that a system so dominated by two parties can resolve internal conflicts on the basis of principles rather than politics?
Most importantly, Chadgate brought out the real George W. Bush. Forget his promise to be a healer. Forgot all those warm-and-fuzzy photos of a kindly Bush with children-of-color. Forget the spin that he's a comfortable-within-his-skin fella who could take or leave the presidency. Here was a bitter, combative, paranoid, self-righteous, do-anything/say-anything pol.
In one brief statement, he accused the Florida supreme court of not merely erring but of actively plotting to steal an election from the rightful winner (himself); he misstated the basic functions of government ("The legislature's job is to write law. It's the executive branch job to interpret law."); and he misled the public about Dick Cheney's medical condition, announcing his running mate had checked into the hospital as a precautionary measure when actually Cheney had suffered a mild heart attack. (Bush "is not a doctor," one of his spokesmen said, as a way of explaining Bush's inaccurate remark.)
This saga, a sequel to the impeachment miniseries, was a godsend for political pundits who had feared dreariness and irrelevance would arrive the day after the election. For the punditeers, the Florida funk presented them with a wonderful opportunity to serve as guides to an anxious nation. How often is CNN's Jeff Greenfield able to show off his mastery of electoral college esoterica?
Television lawyers and political correspondents were called out in massive numbers to explain the various things that can happen to a chad. At the all-news cable channels, ratings did not fall off after E-Day. The numbers for the final quarter would be higher than expected. And in these uncharted waters, few, if any, observers (or participants) knew what would happen next; consequently, one opinion was about as good as another.
All in all, an ideal situation for the professional chatterers. Much better than the usual opportunity presented by elections, when commentators try to assess the inchoate forces and multiple factors of a national campaign and transform all of it into a coherent, linear narrative -- and then, too frequently, issue predictions supposedly based on their expertise.
This year -- no shit -- was a lousy one for the TV prognosticators. Let's go to the videotape. National Review's Kate O'Beirne foresaw Bush wiping Gore 315 to 223 in the electoral college. Group-leader John McLaughin forecasted a Bush win by 7 percent in the popular vote. US News and World Report's Michael Barone predicted Bush by six points. Fox News Channel's Morton Kondracke saw Bush winning by five points. MSNBC pollster Frank Luntz picked Bush to win by 3.5 percent. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol thought Gore would win the popular vote by 1 percent (not bad) but would slam Bush in the electoral college, 317 to 221. Columnist Mark Shield backed Gore, 297 to 241. CNN Crossfire host Mary Matalin noted that Bush would trounce Gore by 8 percent and beat him 359 to 179 in the electoral college. Felon-turned-talking-head Oliver North said Bush would win by nine points.
A few commentators came close -- Paul Begala guessed a tie in the popular vote, Chris Matthews and Margaret Carlson each predicted squeakers in the electoral college, with Gore winning -- but overall the profession performed poorly. As far as I could tell, no one believed the Democrats, led by a dead man, would fight back to a 50-50 tie in the Senate -- let alone warned viewers and readers of the recount mess to come.
I had eschewed any formal predictions, after realizing I had no clue as to the mood of the electorate. In other words, I was chicken. Sure, polling told us all that the race was close, and my hunch was Bush would prevail because his campaign had been the more competent of the two. (In a tight race, it's usually wise to place your money on the side that screws up less.) But I resisted the urge to hunchify, believing my guess would not be more insightful than that of any casual viewer of CNN's "Inside Politics" -- or that of the pundits listed above. By the way, note how most of the predictions followed the ideological inclinations of the commentators.
The Florida recount offered pundits something much better than a perch for tossing out predictions. Now, they -- well, I should say, we -- could act as game-theorists, spewing an almost endless stream of scenarios and leading the nation in a marvelous spell of what-if. What if this court rules that way, what if this set of ballots are counted or discounted, what if the Republican-controlled Florida legislature intervenes, what if the deadline for elector-selection passes before there is a resolution, what if there is no president-elect come January 20, what if the House Republicans reject the electors of Florida, what if the new Senate splits on the vote to certify the electoral college results, what if....? Isn't this more enjoyable than debating the meaning of "is" and poring over an official government report that details the number of times a president had intimate contact with an intern without unloading?
Crafting scenarios is better work than dishing out predictions. It takes imagination and is almost like pitching a movie. Is it any wonder the media prefers to engage in this task than, say, reporting on the latest international conference on global warming? In fact, as the news media and its consumers were obsessed with recount-mania, a vital summit on global warming was under way at the Hague -- where the Clinton Administration's effort to write loopholes into the already-modest Kyoto climate agreement -- was being assailed by the European allies. Arguably, global warming is a more significant matter than the selection of the next US president. A new study from the World Health Organization notes that "strategic climate policies could prevent 8 million deaths globally that would occur between 2000 and 2020 as a result of pursuing business as usual." But a few days into the climate talks, the gathering had earned only one mention on television news in the United States, during a spot on a CNN show.
Mea culpa and all that. I, too, was glued to the television screen, hanging on to every word uttered by those county election officers. And I accepted television and radio invitations to invent situations. My two favorite scenarios: Number one -- Gore wins by a dozen or so votes after the hand counts, and Bush challenges these results in federal court. The matter quickly comes before the Supreme Court, and the court, in a conservative opinion penned by none other than Justice Antonin Scalia, tells Bush it will not intervene in a state election. So Gore becomes president thanks to Scalia. How would the establishment liberals -- some of whom attacked Ralph Nader's presidential bid by repeatedly citing the prospect of more Scalias -- react to this? But by the time you read this, this possible plot-line probably will have fizzled out.
On to number two. Put aside the speculation about electors, recounts, court decisions, and protests and contests, and let's turn toward the other big-time campaign anomaly: Dick Cheney's health. Suppose he really isn't up to the job. If Bush and Cheney finally win in Florida but Cheney bows out after the electors submit their votes on December 18, then Bush would nominate a new vice-president who would have to be confirmed by the House and Senate. But if Cheney quits the ticket before he and Bush officially become president-elect and vice-president-elect, Bush can choose anyone he wants, as long as the Republican Party concurs. Think about it: the next vice-president could be a person who will not have to face either the voters in a national election or a congressional confirmation.
Which brings us to Katherine Harris. Reportedly she was hoping for an ambassadorship in a Bush administration, and she apparently is in line for a high-level job in the Bush transition, heading up the Latin American policy desk. (Her first policy paper: how to import Banana Republic voting methodologies for US elections.)
But if Bush wants to provide her with just compensation for her efforts as cochair of his Florida campaign (after all, how many other state cochairs cut off unfavorable vote recounts?), here's the suitable position -- that is, if Cheney has to depart.
Okay, this is a farfetched scenario. But, certainly, it is more amusing (and less depressing) to devise such fanciful fare than to try to remind Americans once again that the all-too-real global-warming scenario is a script of disease, destruction and death. In the national discourse, rock beats scissors, and plot beats policy.