Bush v. Gore's Dark American Decade
December 12, 2010
Ten years ago, the United States stood at a crossroads though the dimness of the future made it hard for many to see which path led toward a brighter day and which headed toward disaster. But then, a partisan Republican majority of the U.S. Supreme Court made the choice for the nation.
At 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, 2000, the Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial rulings ever, telling Florida that its recount of the presidential election must include all legally cast ballots but giving the state the absurdly short time of two hours to complete the process.
Everyone immediately understood what the five partisan Republicans – William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy – had done: they had awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.
They did this even though it was clear that Bush had lost the national popular vote to Al Gore by half a million votes. It also appears that Bush would have lost Florida if the full recount had been given the necessary time.
Even if the butterfly ballot fiasco and other irregularities were ignored, Gore still was likely to prevail narrowly if all the legally cast ballots – those expressing the clear intent of the voters – were counted, as an unofficial tally by news organizations determined a year later.
So, instead of the deeply qualified Gore becoming president, the largely unqualified Bush took over, carrying with him an anti-government philosophy of tax cuts tilted toward the rich and reduced regulation for business, combined with a tough-guy-ism toward the world – essentially the script crafted three decades ago by President Ronald Reagan.
By virtually all objective measures, the consequences of Bush’s eight-year presidency were disastrous, including massive federal deficits, an economy ravaged by reckless gambling on Wall Street, and two costly wars still hemorrhaging money and blood.
However, after two years of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress undertaking emergency (and often unpopular) steps to stabilize the collapsing economy, the Republicans pounded a campaign drum of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction, deriding Obama’s modest stimulus efforts and health-care reform as costly failures.
In their comeback, the Republicans also were aided by another Supreme Court ruling in early 2010, the Citizens United case, in which two right-wing appointees of President Bush – John Roberts and Samuel Alito – joined with Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy to strike down restrictions on corporate spending for political ads.
The ruling unleashed an unprecedented wave of TV commercials pounding the Democrats as fiscally irresponsible, accusing them of burdening America’s children with debt while failing to solve the nation’s economic troubles.
Many Americans responded to this messaging about fiscal responsibility by going to the polls on Nov. 2 and handing the Republicans a resounding victory, including GOP control of the House of Representatives and a much stronger hand in the Senate.
However, instead of attacking the deficit, the first act of the victorious Republicans was to coerce Obama into accepting an extension and expansion of tax cuts for the rich, in exchange for more unemployment insurance and various tax breaks for small business and the middle class, a package that would add nearly $1 trillion to the debt.
To the dismay of the liberal Democratic base, Obama apparently has surveyed the power shift in American politics and concluded that he has little choice but to surrender to the Republicans. So the consequences of Election 2000 and the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore ruling live on.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Fittingly perhaps -- given the absurdity that has overtaken American politics -- the Bush v. Gore ruling was an Alice-in-Wonderland exercise in turning legal logic on its head and making a mockery of bedrock democratic principles, such as the one that says the candidate with the most votes is supposed to win.
But how that momentous decision was reached is still little understood by Americans, even a decade later.
The behind-the-scenes court drama began on Dec. 8, 2000. Bush was clinging to an official lead of only a few hundred votes out of six million cast in Florida when the Bush forces were dealt a crushing blow. A divided Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide review of ballots that had been kicked out by antiquated counting machines.
The recount began on the morning of Dec. 9. Immediately, the canvassers began finding scores of legitimate votes that the machines had rejected.
Despite a supposed reverence for states’ rights and a disdain for federal interference, Bush’s lawyers raced to the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta to stop the count. Dominated by conservatives, the appeals court held to established precedents and refused to intervene.
A frantic Bush then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. There, in the late afternoon, the high court took the unprecedented step of issuing an injunction to stop the counting of votes cast by American citizens.
Justice Scalia made clear that the purpose of the court’s action was to prevent Bush from falling behind in the tally and thus raising questions about his legitimacy should the Supreme Court later declare him the winner.
That outcome would “cast a cloud” over the “legitimacy” of an eventual Bush presidency, explained Scalia. “Count first, and rule upon the legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires,” Scalia wrote.
Trusting the Law
Nevertheless, on Dec. 11, Gore and his lawyers voiced confidence that the rule of law would prevail, that the U.S. Supreme Court would rise above any partisan concerns and would insist that the votes be counted and that the will of the voters be respected.
The Gore team went before Rehnquist’s court apparently still unaware that whatever they argued, the five Republican partisans were determined to make Bush the next president.
The evidence is now clear that Rehnquist and his four Republican colleagues decided on the outcome first and worked out the rationale second. Indeed, their legal logic flipped from the start of their deliberations to the end, but their pro-Bush verdict remained steadfast.
USA Today disclosed this inside story in an article about the strains that the Bush v. Gore ruling created within the court. Though the article was sympathetic to the pro-Bush justices, it disclosed an important fact: that the five were planning to rule for Bush after oral arguments on Dec. 11. The court even sent out for Chinese food for the clerks, so work could be completed that night. [USA Today, Jan. 22, 2001]
At that point, the legal rationale for stopping the Florida recount was to have been that the Florida Supreme Court had made “new law” when it referenced the state constitution in an initial recount decision – rather than simply interpreting state statutes.
Even though this basis for giving Bush the White House was highly technical, the rationale at least conformed with conservative principles, which are supposedly hostile to judicial “activism.” But the Florida Supreme Court threw a wrench into the plan.
On the evening of Dec. 11, the state court submitted a revised ruling that deleted the passing reference to the state constitution. The revised ruling based its reasoning entirely on state statutes, which permitted recounts in close elections.
This modified state ruling opened a split among the five conservatives. Justices O’Connor and Kennedy no longer felt they could agree with the “new law” rationale for blocking the recount, though Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas were prepared to stick with the old thinking even though its foundation had been removed.
Finding a Reason
The plans for finishing up the formal opinion on the evening of Dec. 11 were scrapped as O’Connor and Kennedy veered off in a very different direction.
Through the day on Dec. 12, they worked on an opinion arguing that the Florida Supreme Court had failed to set consistent standards for the recount and that the disparate county-by-county standards constituted a violation of the “equal protection” rules of the 14th Amendment.
The logic of this argument was quite thin and Kennedy reportedly had trouble committing it to writing. To anyone who had followed the Florida election, it was obvious that varied standards already had been applied throughout the state.
Wealthier precincts benefited from optical voting machines that were simple to use and eliminated nearly all errors, while poorer precincts with many African-Americans and retired Jews were stuck with outmoded punch-card systems with far higher error rates.
Some counties had conducted manual recounts, too, and those totals already were part of the tallies giving Bush a tiny lead
The statewide recount – ordered by the Florida Supreme Court – was designed to reduce those disparities and thus bring the results closer to equality. Applying the “equal protection” provision, as planned by O’Connor and Kennedy, turned the 14th Amendment on its head, guaranteeing less equality than would have occurred by letting the recount go forward.
Indeed, if one were to follow the “logic” of the O’Connor-Kennedy position, the only “fair” conclusion would have been to throw out Florida’s presidential election in total. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court was effectively judging Florida’s disparate standards to be unconstitutional. But that would have left Gore with a majority of the remaining electoral votes.
Or, more rationally, the U.S. Supreme Court could have given Florida more time to conduct the fuller recount that the O’Connor-Kennedy position envisioned, bringing in not only so-called “under-votes” in which a choice was hard to detect but “over-votes” in which citizens both punched the hole for their choice and wrote his name in.
However, Gore stood to benefit from either approach and that went against the pre-determined outcome to put Bush in the White House, whatever the legal excuse had to be.
Even more telling than the stretched logic of the O’Connor-Kennedy faction was the readiness of Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas to sign on to a ruling that was almost completely at odds with their original legal rationale for blocking the recount.
On the night of Dec. 11, that trio was ready to bar the recount because the Florida Supreme Court had created “new law.” On Dec. 12, the same three justices were voting to block the recount because the Florida Supreme Court had not created “new law” – by establishing precise statewide recount standards.
The five conservatives had devised their own Catch-22. If the Florida Supreme Court set clearer standards, that would be struck down as creating “new law.” If the state court didn’t set clearer standards, that would be struck down as violating the “equal protection” principle. Heads Bush wins; tails Gore loses.
There was one other clever twist to the conservative majority’s maneuvering. When the ruling was issued at around 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, the O’Connor-Kennedy rationale asserted that the 14th Amendment required a recount with equal standards applied statewide, but then gave Florida only two hours to complete the process before a deadline of midnight.
Because this two-hour window was absurdly unrealistic, the result of the ruling was to give Bush the White House based on a 537-vote lead in the “official” Florida results, as overseen by the state administration of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
After the court’s ruling and Gore's gracious-but-pained concession speech the next day, Justice Thomas told a group of high school students that partisan considerations played “zero” part in the court's decisions.
Later, asked whether Thomas's assessment was accurate, Rehnquist answered, “Absolutely.”
In later comments about the court’s role in the case, Rehnquist seemed unfazed by the inconsistency of the court’s logic. His overriding rationale seemed to be that he viewed Bush’s election as good for the country – whether most voters thought so or not.
In a speech on Jan. 7, 2001, Rehnquist said sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court needed to intervene in politics to extricate the nation from a crisis. His remarks were made in the context of the Hayes-Tilden race in 1876, when another popular vote loser, Rutherford B. Hayes, was awarded the presidency after justices participated in a special election commission.
“The political processes of the country had worked, admittedly in a rather unusual way, to avoid a serious crisis,” Rehnquist said.
Scholars interpreted Rehnquist’s remarks as shedding light on his thinking during the Bush v. Gore case as well.
“He’s making a rather clear statement of what he thought the primary job of our governmental process was,” said Michael Les Benedict, a history professor at Ohio State University. “That was to make sure the conflict is resolved peacefully, with no violence.” [Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2001]
But where were the threats of violence and acts of disruption in the 2000 election?
Gore had reined in his supporters, urging them to avoid confrontations and to trust in the “rule of law.” The only violence had come from the Bush side, when the Bush campaign flew protesters from Washington to Miami to put pressure on local election boards.
On Nov. 22, 2000, as the Miami-Dade canvassing board was preparing to examine ballots, a well-dressed mob of Republican operatives charged the office, roughed up some Democrats and pounded on the walls. The canvassing board promptly reversed itself and decided to forego the recount.
The next night, the Bush-Cheney campaign feted the rioters at a hotel party in Fort Lauderdale. Starring at the event was crooner Wayne Newton singing “Danke Schoen,” but the highlight for the operatives was a thank-you call from George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, both of whom joked about the Miami-Dade incident, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Journal noted that “behind the rowdy rallies in South Florida this past weekend was a well-organized effort by Republican operatives to entice supporters to South Florida,” with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's Capitol Hill office taking charge of the recruitment. [WSJ, Nov. 27, 2000.]
In other less violent ways, Bush-Cheney operatives signaled that they would not accept an unfavorable vote total in Florida.
In the chance that Gore pulled ahead, the Republican-controlled state legislature was preparing to void the results. In Washington, the Republican congressional leadership also was threatening to force a constitutional crisis if Gore prevailed in Florida.
If one takes Rehnquist’s “good-for-the-country” rationale seriously, that means the U.S. Supreme Court was ready to award the presidency to the side most willing to use violence and other anti-democratic means to overturn the will of the voters.
Rehnquist’s approach suggested that since Gore and his supporters were less likely to resort to violence – while Bush and his backers were ready to provoke a crisis if they didn’t get their way – that the high court should give the presidency to the side most committed to disruption.
A far more democratic – and rational – approach would have been for the Supreme Court to accept the O’Connor-Kennedy logic and simply extend the deadline for Florida to turn in its results. The court could have ordered the fullest and fairest possible recount with the winner being whichever candidate ended up with the most votes.
However, if that had occurred, the almost certain winner would have been Gore.
When a group of news organizations conducted an unofficial recount of Florida’s disputed ballots in 2001, Gore came out narrowly on top regardless of what standards were applied to the famous chads – dimpled, hanging or punched-through.
Gore’s victory would have been assured by the so-called “over-votes” in which a voter both punched through a candidate’s name and wrote it in. Under Florida law, such “over-votes” are legal and they broke heavily in Gore’s favor.
In other words, the wrong candidate had been awarded the presidency. However, this startling fact became an unpleasant reality that the mainstream U.S. news media decided to obscure.
The tally wasn’t completed until after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the prevailing view among senior news executives became that it would be harmful to the nation’s need for unity if the press reported that Gore was the rightful winner of Election 2000.
So, the major newspapers and TV networks hid their own scoop when the results were published on Nov. 12, 2001. Instead of stating clearly that Florida’s legally cast votes favored Gore, the mainstream media bent over backwards to concoct hypothetical situations in which Bush might still have won the presidency, such as if the recount were limited to only a few counties or if the legal “over-votes” were excluded.
The discovery of Gore’s rightful victory was buried deep in the stories or relegated to charts that accompanied the articles.
Misleading the Readers
Any casual reader would have come away from reading the New York Times or the Washington Post with the conclusion that Bush really had won Florida and thus was the legitimate president after all.
The Post’s headline read, “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush.” The Times ran the headline: “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.”
Some columnists, such as the Post’s media analyst Howard Kurtz, even launched preemptive strikes against anyone who would read the fine print and spot the hidden “lede” of Gore’s victory. Kurtz labeled such people “conspiracy theorists.” [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]
After reading these slanted “Bush Won” stories, I wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com noting that the obvious “lede” should have been that the recount revealed that Gore had won. I suggested that the news judgments of senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear patriotic only two months after 9/11.
My article had been up for only a couple of hours when I received an irate phone call from New York Times media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then-Times executive editor Howell Raines. I got the impression that Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant story that didn’t accept the pro-Bush conventional wisdom.
Today, the dominant conventional wisdom appears to be that while the Bush v. Gore decision was a case of politicized justice, it’s not something that Americans should get too upset about. There is even a school of thought that asserts that it was encouraging that U.S. citizens did not take to the streets to protest this overturning of their democratic judgment.
In a Sept. 13, 2010, interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the dissenters in the Bush v. Gore ruling, said he still believed the majority was wrong, but added that he found the aftermath remarkable in a positive way.
“That remarkable thing, is even though more than half the public strongly disagreed with it [Bush v. Gore], thought it was really wrong, they followed it,” Breyer said. “And the alternative, using guns, having revolutions, is a worse alternative.
“And it’s taken quite a long time, many, many years, decades and decades for Americans to come to that understanding. And that fact — that America will follow court decisions made by fallible human beings, even when those decisions are very unpopular — has not always been true.”
In other words, Breyer believes it is preferable for Americans to accept an anti-democratic judgment made by five partisans in black robes than to rise up in outrage against a powerful institution that has usurped the role of the voters and overturned the consent of the governed.
Yet, is that acquiescence really preferable to the courageous actions by people all over the world who have staged protests and risked their lives in defense of democracy when autocratic rulers have refused to accept the results of an election?
A decade after the fateful court ruling – with the results of Bush’s presidency now painfully apparent and his own appointed justices helping to open the floodgates of special-interest money to further distort the democratic process – Bush v. Gore must be viewed as a moment when the United States started down a very dark road.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.