Florida Squeeze

How you look at things.
Nov. 11 2000 1:30 AM

Florida Squeeze

Is George W. Bush president-elect of the United States? Early Wednesday morning, everyone who was still watching television thought so. The networks said Bush had won Florida, and with it the Electoral College. Al Gore called Bush to concede the race. Then the margin in Florida drastically narrowed, the networks retracted their verdict, Gore withdrew his concession, and his campaign began pressing for a Florida recount and investigations of purported election irregularities. Political framing has entered a brave new world. Elections used to resolve spin wars. Now a spin war will resolve an election.

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The Gore campaign, whose very existence at this stage shatters the modern political vocabulary, is attempting something profoundly audacious. It is trying to stop the media and the public from bestowing the presumption of victory on the candidate who appeared to have numerically won the presidency on election night. For weeks, the Bush campaign has tried to psych out the media, the voters, and Democrats. Reporters were conned by Bush's air of confidence and his visits to California. Nearly everyone expected him to win. Reports of his victory were prepared beforehand and printed in early newspaper editions as soon as the networks called the election.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Despite the controversy in Florida, Bush has continued to project inevitability, leaking his plans for Cabinet appointments. "The results are out there, they're now being certified," he told reporters Wednesday morning. "I'm looking forward to this being speedily resolved and that the vote that we believe we've got in Florida is confirmed. And when that happens, I'll be the president-elect." On Good Morning America, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, marveling that "the voters have spoken and [we] have been chosen to lead our nation," asserted that in Florida, "100 percent of the votes are in, all precincts, all absentee ballots." These statements threatened to force Gore's surrender by making Gore look like a sore loser. But instead of folding, Gore has waged a psychological counterattack. He has forestalled the reality of defeat by forestalling the perception of defeat. You can't be judged a sore loser if the media doubt you lost. How is Gore making that case? Here are his arguments.

1. Gore is winning the popular vote. Gore needed a measure of authority to withhold his concession and contest the outcome in Florida. His razor-thin edge in the popular vote gave him that leverage. "Joe Lieberman and I won the popular vote," he told reporters Wednesday. President Clinton chimed in that Gore "was pleased that he was ahead in the popular vote." Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley extolled "the will of the people," called for "the election of a president who has the most votes in our country," and applied that crowbar to the dispute in Florida: "We believe this requires the full attention of the courts in Florida and concerned citizens all around our country." This argument frames Bush, not Gore, as the foot-dragging loser.

2. Gore is winning the Electoral College. Recognizing the unconstitutional overtones of his popular-vote argument, Daley adds that in the absence of Florida's 25 unresolved electoral votes, Gore has won more electors than Bush. When a reporter asked whether Gore was "undercutting" the next president "by challenging this, dragging this out," Daley replied, "Not only is the vice president ahead in the popular vote, he is ahead in the Electoral College." The argument is circular: Gore has the authority to contest Florida's results because he's ahead in electoral votes, and he's ahead in electoral votes because Florida's results are contested.

3. The election is a process. While the Bush camp speaks of the election's "results" and says "the votes are in," the Gore camp constantly describes the election as an ongoing "process." Wednesday, Daley shot down sore-loser questions by asserting, "There is a process that is moving forward. … [T]he process has to be completed." When asked whether Florida's computerized recount would end the dispute, Daley answered, "I can't say with certainty when this will be over. … This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process."

4. The process precludes certainty. The "process" spin implies that as long as the counting, recounting, and litigation continue, the outcome is too unstable to measure. Early Wednesday morning, Daley cautioned reporters that "without being certain of the results in Florida, we simply cannot be certain of the results of this national election. … [T]his race is still too close to call." The press bought that line and withheld Bush's coronation. Later in the day, Daley described Bush's apparent lead in Florida as "in doubt," "unclear," and a "reported gap." When asked whether Florida's recount would settle the matter, Daley replied, "[A]ny thought that a number that someone could come up with today is the final number is probably not realistic," because it's impossible "to announce an official vote when the process isn't over."

5. The process includes the courts. To head off the charge that Democrats are turning to the courts to thwart the people's will, Daley portrays the election, the recount, and judicial review of the process as a seamless whole. "Let the legal system run its course. Let the true and accurate rule of the people prevail," he urged Wednesday. "This is the first step, this recount, and then there's the absentee ballots that will come in, and we're raising some very serious questions, and legal actions will be taken." As for Bush's objections, Daley argued, "We would expect the same adherence to the rule of law and democratic process from their campaign."

6. The courts must serve democracy. While invoking "the rule of law," the Gore campaign implies that Florida courts should follow the national election returns, on pain of appearing undemocratic. Daley and other Gore spokesmen demand that the courts redress the "disenfranchisement" of Florida voters whose ballots were marked wrongly and discarded. Daley has come precariously close to challenging the judiciary's independence. Republicans "cite legal provisions about published ballots and technical notice," he scoffed Wednesday. "Technicalities should not determine the presidency of the United States; the will of the people should."

7. The truth is out there. Anticipating the objection that vote counts and election litigation can never be perfectly resolved, the Gore camp nurtures the notion that beyond the uncertain, constantly changing numbers touted by the Bush camp lies an elusive Platonic truth. Otherwise, why continue the recounts and lawsuits? "Without a manual recount, the voters of Florida are not going to know what the truth is," protested Gore campaign lawyer Kendall Coffey. Suspicious numbers in the initial count "cry out for justice and for getting to the bottom and getting to the truth." Clinton held out the same mysterious prospect: "The American people have now spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said."

8. Gore can divine the truth. Gore's principal challenge to the Florida count—he thinks thousands of Palm Beach County ballots that were punched twice or were marked for Pat Buchanan were meant for him—is largely speculative. Short of collecting affidavits from these voters and matching them with the ballots, there's no way to prove how many of them meant to vote for Gore. So the Gore team weaves an illusion of clear error. "Here in Florida, it also seems very likely that more voters went to the polls believing that they were voting for Al Gore than for George Bush," Daley theorized Wednesday. "There seems every reason to believe that well over 2,000 of these votes" cast for Pat Buchanan "were votes for Vice President Al Gore, more than enough to make him the winner." Never mind that these ballots were marked for Buchanan. They "were votes for … Gore."

9. Bush is defying democracy. The Gore camp brings all of these arguments to bear on the ultimate question: whether Bush, by virtue of leading the latest vote count in Florida, is the presumptive president-elect. If the media and the public accept that premise, they'll ratchet up the pressure on Gore until he concedes. To avert that scenario, Daley fired a shot across the Bush campaign's bow Wednesday. "Their actions to try to presumptively crown themselves the victors, to try to put in place a transition, run the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion," he charged. "Bold claims not based on the rule of the people endanger the orderly transition of power."

What a combination of chutzpah and jujitsu. How do you defeat a self-fulfilling argument? With a self-fulfilling argument to the contrary. The way the Gore campaign frames the standoff, not only should Bush be deprived of the presumption of victory, but he's the one bucking the electorate's verdict and disrupting the constitutional process. Bush, not Gore, is dividing the public and making uncertified claims, says the man who trails in Florida. Who does Gore think he is, the president? If he wins the debate over who won the election, he will be.

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