Within a day or two, the U.S. Supreme Court may reverse last Friday's decision by the Florida Supreme Court and thereby effectively end Al Gore's chances of becoming president in January. It would be deeply hypocritical -- and wrong, moreover -- were Democrats to question the legitimacy of the Supreme Court's decision, however objectionable it is and regardless of the lines along which it is delivered. But as Gore prepares himself and his party for that possibility, it is crucial to point out that, up until that point, he has executed precisely the kind of endgame that the situation demanded. Even had he known from the beginning that he would lose in the end, Gore was right to wage the fight -- right to file his lawsuits, right to appeal and re-appeal, right to muster his party and his constituents, right to ignore the polls, and right to ignore those who urged him to pack it in for the good of the nation.
The first thing Gore's stubbornness accomplished was to bring out the absolute worst in an otherwise annoyingly temperate George W. Bush camp. Within days of the first, automatic recount, the Bush camp was getting more truly negative press than it had, really, at any point during the campaign -- first due to blatant hypocrisy (attacking the Democrats for threatening legal contests, before filing the first in a long series of such contests), and then for resorting to the kind of distasteful right-wingery the Bushies had long eschewed. The most prominent was Bush consigliere James Baker, whose bitter attack on the Florida Supreme Court's first ruling was widely criticized, correctly, as an unjustified assault on judicial integrity. But let's not forget Karen Hughes, whose suggestion that Gore was unpatriotic was wonderfully reminiscent of the redbaiting of yore. Together, Hughes and Baker managed to overshadow Gore's own inconsistencies -- particularly his challenging of overseas absentee ballots on technical grounds even as he argued, publicly, for the fullest possible recount.
But that was just the beginning. Once Bush's immediate surrogates lashed out, they lost whatever rein they had on the more overtly partisan Republican activists and officials. The conservative intelligentsia were the quickest to go nuclear: The Weekly Standard and George Will both accused Gore of waging a coup; The National Review shrieked that Gore was stealing the election; and the typically hysterical Peggy Noonan called for a nationwide uprising (a peaceful one, natch). Right behind them came House Whip Tom DeLay and his latter-day Newties, who collectively constitute the most effective public relations tool in the Democratic arsenal. Within days, Republican activists flown in from around the country -- with various Hill staffers at the helm, according to press reports -- had organized a full-scale riot outside the offices of the Miami-Dade County elections board, a move which, while it may have intimidated the board in to stopping their hand recount, was a colossal public relations blunder. Not satisfied with such disruption, DeLay then began talking about having the House of Representatives reject any slate of pro-Gore Florida electors that came down the pike.
All this was so extreme, so over-the-top, that it had the unintended consequence of shoring up Gore's support among his own party, where, at that point, he needed it most. Within days, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle had organized a conference call with Al Gore, promising him publicly that they were "supportive of going ahead with this contest." Members of Congress like Virginia's James P. Moran and Indiana's Tim Roemer, never very vocal Gore supporters, rallied to the vice president's side. Even Bob Kerrey -- perhaps the most outspokenly anti-Clinton, anti-Gore Democrat in Congress -- flew down to Florida to help out.
It's been obvious from the beginning, of course, that the consequences of the recount fight would resonate long past Inauguration Day. What matters is how. And from the looks of things, the long-range effects will benefit the Democratic Party.
Bush's main advantage through this whole election has been his aura of moderation and his distinctly unrevolutionary tones, achieved largely through the remarkable discipline of Republican conservatives. By contrast, the Democrats' main disadvantage has been their relative disunity, especially the substantial body of conservative and moderate congressional Democrats who would, in the face of a clean Gore defeat, be willing to play ball with a Bush Administration.
But the result of the 2000 election -- the Republican sweep contrasted against clear signs that the public favors the core Democratic agenda -- seem to have changed that dynamic. Obviously no one likes to be cheated, and the Republican shenanigans of the past month have aroused more unifying anger among Democrats than anything since impeachment. But the sneering triumphalism of Republicans like DeLay and Texas Senator Phil Gramm -- who both seem to think that this election heralds the end of the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, rather than vice versa -- seems to have reminded certain Democrats of why, in the end, they are Democrats, complicating Bush's presumptive strategy of co-optation. It's one thing to play ball when your party controls one or two branches of government; it's quite another when the other party controls all branches of the government and mistakes the narrowest of victories for the broadest of public mandates. The more DeLay and Gramm crow, the worse it is for Bush, and the better it is for the Democrats.
This kind of partisan autocatalysis can't go on forever, of course. If the Supreme Court rules against Gore, it may finally be to his advantage -- as it was not before -- to pack it in. All good things, as the saying goes, come to an end. And for the Democrats, the Florida recount fight as been a very good thing.