To become president of the United States, says the Constitution, a person has to be at least 35 years old and a “natural born citizen.” Conniving, dissembling, opportunistic snakes are not disqualified, which is a good thing for George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Not that either side is incapable of honesty. Both Democrats and Republicans accuse their opponents of trying to steal the election, and both are right. Each side is striving to prevent the other from winning through unfair and unscrupulous means, so that it can win through unfair and unscrupulous means.
The warring parties bring to mind the 17th-century Puritans, who allegedly came to America in search of religious freedom. Actually, they wanted religious freedom only for themselves, not for anyone else. Gore and Bush each want to exploit the various types of electoral unfairness to his own advantage, not wipe it out.
What partisans portray as a battle over principle looks more like the Super Bowl of hypocrisy. Bush has argued against hand recounts, and particularly against including “dimpled chads.” Yet he signed a law in Texas authorizing those very practices. Letting human beings inspect disputed ballots one by one is dangerously subjective in Florida, but indispensable to honest elections in the Lone Star State.
Gore claims that all he wants is a fair count of all the votes cast in Florida. But he hasn’t stopped other Democrats from suing to exclude absentee ballots in Seminole County — which conveniently would deprive Bush of several thousand votes. The vice president’s passion for inclusiveness is also absent when it comes to absentee ballots from military personnel stationed abroad: Hundreds of them have been rejected because they lack postmarks. It’s Bush’s attorneys, not Gore’s, who went to court insisting that those votes be counted.
Republicans say state law gives counties just seven days to report their vote totals, and that the limit must be enforced even if some counties need more time for recounts. The extension ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, they say, amounts to a flagrant rewriting of the law. At the same time, Bush and Co. think it would be horribly unjust for election boards to actually abide by that law requiring postmarks — because it means some military votes (which tend to go Republican) won’t be counted.
Should we enforce the law as written, or should we make adjustments to get a better measure of the will of the people? Bush and Gore have a clear, coherent answer: Enforce the law when it will help me, and don’t when it won’t.
Democrats were pleased when Secretary of State Katherine Harris was told she couldn’t enforce the seven-day rule but had to abide by the Sunday, Nov. 26 deadline established by the Florida Supreme Court. But when Palm Beach County election officials took Thanksgiving off and then wanted yet another extension, Democrats thought Harris should disregard the timetable established by the court and grant extra time entirely on her own.
Republicans have taken pride in the near-riot by Bush supporters — “newly assertive Republicans,” in the admiring words of conservative writer Peggy Noonan — at the Miami-Dade county board offices, which helped induce the board to abandon a recount that would have helped Gore. If a raucous protest led by Jesse Jackson had intimidated election officials in a GOP stronghold, do you think Noonan would be praising the demonstrators’ assertiveness?
Democrats are fond of resolving disputes by turning to the federal government, which they trust more than state and local bodies. But it’s Gore taking the position that the U.S. Supreme Court should stay out of the squabble because it’s the rightful province of the state of Florida. Bush, whose party is usually the champion of state sovereignty, wants the Supreme Court to rule that Florida’s state courts can’t be trusted to interpret their own laws and need benevolent guidance from Washington.
Gore says it’s critical that every vote be counted. But from the start, his real concern has been on getting recounts only in counties where he might gain votes — taking advantage of Bush’s failure to ask for recounts within 72 hours after the election, the time limit set by law.
Early on, the two candidates could have asked Katherine Harris to authorize a statewide recount to find out who really got the most votes, and the chances are good she would have agreed. But neither was much interested in that option. Each could think of an option that would be better — better for himself, that is.
When Election Day arrived, the country was divided more or less equally between those who disliked Gore and those who disliked Bush. Before long, Americans may be united in detesting them both.