If back in 2001 I had told you that 18 years later the country would be living with the most corrupt president anyone could remember while his administration and Republicans in Congress steamrolled over every norm of politics and governing they could find, while Democrats meekly debated whether it would seem rude to impeach him, you would have said, “So I take it not much has changed?”
That’s because the seeds of what we endure today, particularly with regard to the limitlessly cynical view of politics embodied in the GOP, were sown in November and December of 2000, in Florida. To understand where we are now, you have to understand what happened then and the way that debacle reverberates through our system.
I decided to revisit Florida 2000 in part because of the release of Leon Neyfakh’s vivid new podcast “Fiasco,” in which he gives it the same examination he gave to Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal. To hear those events recounted and the recollections of some of key players like Katherine Harris may enrage you all over again as the memory of those days is picked at like an old wound, fascinating though it remains.
But it’s so important because when we watch what the Republican Party of today is and what it is capable of—when you see the Trump administration simply refuse to comply with lawful subpoenas, or watch Republicans in the Senate decide that they won’t allow a president to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat because he’s a Democrat—we should know that this is the GOP created by Florida 2000.
Let me be clear about what I do and don’t mean by that. There has been dirty and unethical politicking as long as politics have existed. Before 2000, the GOP had been transformed by Newt Gingrich, who turned them into a party that believed Democrats were not the opposition but the enemy, and politics was a fight to the death where no compromise could be permitted. The war against liberals, Gingrich said in 1988, “has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.”
That belief was a key part of the outlook many if not most Republicans already held in 2000. What Florida did, however, was teach them two very particular lessons. First, all the procedures and safeguards of fairness built into the American system are vulnerable to those with the will to twist them or attack them. And second, if you win, nothing you did in order to secure that victory will matter. You will not pay a cost for how you won, or if you do it will be so trivial next to what you gain in power that it will be meaningless.
I won’t recount the whole story of Florida 2000, about which entire books have been written. But it was obvious to anyone watching at the time that there was something profoundly different about the Democrats and Republicans as they tried to force or stop counts and recounts that they hoped would swing the election their way: The Republicans were operating without guardrails.
They were fortunate enough to have Harris as the state’s chief election official; she also just happened to be the state co-chair of the George W. Bush campaign, and every ruling she issued over any procedural question just happened to be exactly what the Bush campaign was after. The state—governed then by Bush’s brother Jeb—just happened to have engineered a grossly flawed voter purge that likely denied Al Gore thousands of votes (the eventual margin by which Bush was declared the winner was 537 votes).
And they were fortunate enough to be facing Gore. Often ridiculed for being stiff and talking in legislative legalisms, frequently called a “boy scout,” forever concerned with respecting procedures and not doing anything that would look unseemly, Gore was the very opposite of the kind of street fighter the moment demanded. George W. Bush, on the other hand, knew when to be nice and when to bring out the knives.
And as the weeks wore on, Republicans proved willing to go where Democrats would not. Most dramatically, Republican operatives staged what would come to be known as the “Brooks Brothers riot,” in which congressional staffers and others angrily pounded on the doors of the rooms where officials from Miami-Dade County were attempting to count ballots in order to shut down the recount. It worked.
As did most of what Republicans did in Florida, up to the point when the Supreme Court issued its shameful ruling in Bush v. Gore, closing off all further recounts and delivering the White House to Bush, in a decision so transparently partisan that the five conservative justices wrote that it should not ever be used as precedent, practically an admission that the whole thing was a farce.
But what really matters is what happened next: nothing. There was no reckoning, no comeuppance, no price to be paid. Bush proceeded through the highs and lows of his presidency, among other things appointing two justices to the Supreme Court. And when Barack Obama got elected, Mitch McConnell and the rest of congressional Republicans mounted a strategy of unceasing obstruction, including shutting down the government, threatening the faith and credit of the United States of America, and slowing Obama’s ability to fill judicial vacancies to a crawl, culminating with their theft of a Supreme Court seat.
Their punishment for all that? The Oval Office in the hands of Donald Trump, quite possibly the single most morally repellent human being to ever sit there, and yet another Republican who became president while losing the popular vote. In other words, no punishment at all.
They knew it would turn out that way, because they have known it since 2000. Try to come up with a recent case in which one of the parties was punished for playing too dirty, or being too mean, or violating too many norms of civility and responsible politics and governing. Can’t do it, can you?
At one point in “Fiasco,” Neyfakh notes that Republicans were regularly contradicting themselves in their legal and public arguments, depending on the situation of the moment. “Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans weren’t afraid of looking like hypocrites,” he says. “They were afraid of losing.”
After the election, a comprehensive analysis of the ballots showed that had they all been counted, Al Gore would have won Florida and been president of the United States. But they weren’t, and he wasn’t. It turns out that when winning is all that matters to you, you can win quite a lot.