As more Americans become disengaged from politics, America's political class has declared civil war. The 2000 election is a case in point. Prior to election day, it was dull, lifeless, and tightly scripted. The candidates fulminated over their differing versions of prescription drug benefits. Half of America's eligible voters didn't even bother voting.
After election day, all hell broke loose. Americans didn't suddenly become more fiercely partisan. It was politicians and party loyalists who did, because there was no longer a script. Neither candidate had much to lose by escalating the post-election battle into a no-holds-barred civil war, and each had everything to gain if he won. Politics was exposed for what it has become--a power grab.
One result: More exciting television. Pandemonium is a great spectator sport. Far larger numbers of Americans tuned in after election day than before. Chris Matthews told me his ratings were twice as high. CNN and Fox News reached new records.
Another: Overheated rhetoric from both camps, including the vilification of public servants. Republicans accused local election officials of being Democrats intent on bending the rules in favor of Gore. Democrats accused state election officials of being Republicans intent on bending the rules in favor of Bush. Gore's official spokesman likened Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state, to a "Soviet commissar." Republicans hissed that the Florida Supreme Court justices were Democrats reinventing law to suit Gore. James Baker, speaking for George W., dubbed the court's decision allowing hand recounts a "judicial fiat" that "invented a new system for counting the election results," and he threatened to summon the Florida legislature to overrule the court. Democrats barked that the legislature was dominated by Republican flacks for Bush.
Another: An explosion of litigation that even experienced attorneys had difficulty following. Smooth-talking lawyers argued on behalf of their "clients" as if they were engaged in lawsuits where one party had wronged the other rather than a proceeding that might determine the next president of the United States. Both camps raised a ton of money for their courtroom gladiators, all of it outside the election laws. "With your support the Presidency was captured for the Democratic party and Al Gore this year. Now our opponents want to use the legal system to steal the election," began a letter I received from an organization calling itself Friends for a Democratic White House, urging that I and my spouse each donate up to $5,000 "to protect our hard-won victory."
Another: Deepening anger and bitterness among party stalwarts. Republican protesters pushed, shoved, and possibly intimidated election officials in Miami-Dade County. Democrats staged rancorous rallies and picketed premises where votes were being hand-counted. Neither campaign condemned these acts; evidence suggests that both encouraged them. "This is war," one Democratic congressman told me a day after the Florida votes had been certified to Bush. "A week ago, I was ready to throw in the towel. Now, I don't care what happens. I'll fight to the bitter end."
Through it all, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore seemed overly concerned about the people whose reputations were impugned or the institutions whose legitimacy was compromised. Neither considered the national interest except in the self-justifying sense of assuming that the nation would be better off if he were president than if his opponent gained the office. That end would justify whatever means.
Normal campaigns are no picnic, of course. But at least candidates are accountable for what transpires when voters go to the polls. Both the Bush and Gore camps toned down the viciousness in the months leading up to election day because voters are increasingly uncomfortable with negative campaigning, along with its personal slurs and partisan hostility.
But after election day, the only constraint operating on these two men was the possibility that a segment of the public would harbor negative feelings toward them when one or the other became president. Both concluded that the risk was worth it. The American public soon forgets even if it doesn't entirely forgive, as it did Clinton's reckless White House liaison and the House Republicans' equally reckless impeachment. And once the cloak of the presidency descends upon the shoulders of the winner, he is magically absolved of all prior sin.
Nor did any other political player have the incentive or stature to find a workable compromise or dissuade either side from its excesses. James Baker and Warren Christopher, skilled diplomats in prior administrations, morphed into mindless partisans. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood mute.
Retired senators like George Mitchell and Bob Dole fell into line behind their respective parties' battering rams. The media shamelessly and predictably stoked the partisan flames, rewarding the loudest and hottest-tempered with prime-time bullhorns.
This election exposed a structural problem more serious than any butterfly ballot, faulty vote-a-matic machine, or dimpled chad. More and more Americans feel as though national politics is irrelevant to their lives. Yet at the same time, within the political class, power-grabbing partisanship has spun out of control. The two trends are not unrelated. ¤