Don't Take the High Road

By Ronald Klain
Sunday, July 9, 2006

For the presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, narrowly declared the loser to Felipe Calderòn in Mexico's much-disputed returns, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that he has avoided the two biggest problems that confronted Al Gore in Recount 2000: being forced to contest the election in a jurisdiction where the governor was his opponent's brother, and being tormented by a chief election official who was a partisan operative with a bizarre Queen Esther complex. The bad news, however, is that, where Gore trailed in the initial tally in Florida by fewer than 2,000 votes, Lopez Obrador is more than 200,000 votes behind. It's only a matter of time before the Mexican equivalent of our pundit class begins its demands for "finality."

For Lopez Obrador, the clock is ticking loudly. If he wants to keep his candidacy alive, he must take decisive -- and quite divisive -- action. He must bring meaningful and documented claims of fraud in the election. He must call his supporters to the streets and question the legitimacy of the vote casting and counting process. He must demand that, notwithstanding Mexican law, every ballot be recounted, by hand, to ensure an accurate tally. Above all, he must reject any suggestion that Calderòn received more votes -- indeed, he must insist that any fair count would show that he is the rightful winner.

This, of course, was not the playbook that Gore followed in 2000. The vice president rejected advice to do these things. Instead of claiming victory, he limited himself to suggesting that the result was in doubt -- and unknown -- until a "full and fair" count could be completed. He urged calm among his supporters and called off street protests by progressive groups and allies. He never, ever questioned the legitimacy of the institutions -- the courts or the canvassers -- responsible for the tallies, and he forbade his lawyers and operatives from doing anything of the sort.

The Gore approach was dignified, responsible, reasonable -- and unsuccessful.

The playbook that Lopez Obrador must follow, if he wants to keep his prospects alive, is the Bush 2000 playbook. Remember the protesters with "Sore Loserman" signs and the crowds near Observatory Circle shouting, "Get out of Cheney's house"? Remember the "Brooks Brothers Riot," bringing an end to the recount in Miami-Dade County? Remember former secretary of state James A. Baker III's condemnation of the Florida courts, and his harsh words for judges who ruled against the Bush campaign? And above all, remember then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's repeated refusal to accept Gore's offers of reconciliation, and his unflinching (though counter-factual) insistence that the votes had "already been counted and recounted" and that he was the undisputed winner? If Lopez Obrador has a hope at this point, the Bush 2000 strategy is probably his only option.

But Lopez Obrador isn't the only one with a hard choice. Calderòn, too, must decide what his next steps will be. For now, he is resisting demands for a full hand recount of all the votes. In the short run, this may maximize his chance of occupying Los Pinos -- but at what price?

For the past six years, President Bush has suffered bitter domestic opposition (suppressed for a time after 9/11), that is, in no small part, an echo of the doubts about how he came into office: in a process in which his campaign systematically attempted to stop legitimate recounts and in which our nation's highest court ordered local election officials to stop tabulating votes. Calderòn can likewise use his power and influence to stifle recounts -- but he would do better to take a very different stance than Bush did in 2000. He would do better to take the Gore approach, and balance the risk of defeat after a full recount against the added legitimacy of his power if he prevails in such a transparent and fulsome process.

Hence, ironically, even though he is trailing, Lopez Obrador's only hope of victory is a Bush-like, scorched-earth approach; and, though he is leading, Calderòn's best hope for leveraging a narrow margin into governing authority as president would be a Gore-like commitment to a full and fair recount. For Calderòn and Lopez Obrador, the choices -- and consequences -- are firmly in their own hands.

Ronald Klain was general counsel for the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee in 2000, and is now a lawyer in Washington.

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