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Post-Campaign More Exciting Than Campaign

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2000; 9:41 AM

The Lewinsky media culture is feasting on a presidential election that just won't end, giving journalists and commentators what they prize above all else: something to argue about.

From arcane disputes about Palm Beach County ballots to legal debates about faithless electors to the usual political strum and drang, the Post-Campaign is proving far more exciting than Campaign 1.0 ever was. With no riots in the streets - except for some disgruntled and mostly elderly Florida voters waving signs like "Fuzzy Voting" the spectacle has all the trappings of a constitutional crisis except that few people seem particularly exercised about the outcome. Which makes it perfect fodder for talk radio and cable shout shows.

Indeed, watching the Florida vote margin shrink by the hour on television screens yesterday was more fun than seeing the Nasdaq plunge (although the two intertwined when the Dow plummeted more than 100 points while Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley spoke of legal action to delay the election still further).

The bare facts, as reported by the Miami Herald, are these: "George W. Bush's grip on the presidency seemed more tenuous early today as an unofficial statewide recount showed him leading Al Gore by 327 votes and a mounting stack of lawsuits and manual vote recounts promised to drag out a decision for much longer."

More interesting, though, are the dueling news conferences and shadowboxing as two candidates who clearly don't like each other struggle for advantage in this absurdly close race.

"The furious competition to claim the White House has become as much a public relations battle as a legal one as the camps of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush today displayed strikingly different strategies in which the recounting of votes seemed secondary," says the New York Times. "At the heart of Mr. Gore's approach is that he has apparently captured the nationwide popular vote. While what matters constitutionally in winning the presidency is the Electoral College tally, Mr. Gore's advisers said that repeatedly citing the popular vote gives the vice president moral authority to make his case and allows Democrats to suggest that the Republicans are trying to subvert the will of the people."

Daley "put forth that moral case and accused the Bush campaign of endeavoring, arrogantly, to snatch the presidency. 'I believe that 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,' Mr. Daley said. By contrast, Mr. Bush is basing his game plan on the fact that, while his margin in Florida today seemed to dwindle by the hour, he is still leading in the vote count there. By energetically pressing that point, Republicans said they hoped to convey that Mr. Bush's ascent to the White House was inevitable and that sore losers in the vice president's camp were trying to steal the election from him."

USA Today offers a dispatch from the Gore front: "Al Gore's resolve to fight for Florida's decisive electoral votes is fueled by two beliefs: an attitude that Democrats hold the moral high ground, and deep resentment that Texas Gov. George W. Bush has begun planning a transition to the presidency while legal disputes over Florida ballots remain unsettled. 'The Bush campaign has been trying to give the democratic process a bum's rush,' says Mark Fabiani, the Gore campaign's deputy campaign manager. Balancing the Democrats' reluctance to surrender was a feeling that in the end, perhaps as soon as Florida finally certifies its vote next week, they might have to accept a bitter loss rather than divide the nation by prolonging the uncertainty."

And here's USA Today from the Bush perspective: "During the campaign, Bush used the 'Gore will do anything' denunciation to dismiss his rival's attacks on his tax cut and Social Security plans. The stakes now are far higher. Bush and his advisers hope the public will interpret Gore's continuing objections to certain ballots and his insistence on hand recounts in some Florida counties as desperation. The calculation in the Bush camp is that the nation will get fed up with the uncertainty and pressure Gore to accept the vote recount if it shows the Texas governor still ahead.

"There's another reason for the escalation of rhetoric by Bush campaign officials. They expect Bush to be president when the legal wrangling ends, and they are working now to ensure that questions about the legitimacy of his administration don't cripple him for four years."

The Washington Post goes with the military metaphor: "War has been declared over the disputed results of Tuesday's presidential election, but it may not be a war that either side can decisively win. Respected voices in both parties agree that this election is increasingly likely to end not in a clear triumph, but in a reluctant surrender. In Florida and nationwide, the gap between George W. Bush and Al Gore perhaps the smallest percentage margin in American history is so tiny that absolute certainty about the vote count is impossible. This inevitably leaves the vice president and the Texas governor to wrestle with powerful issues of ambiguity, of party, of ego, of passions, of patriotism, of justice, of legacy.

" 'The first test of whether either of these guys can be leaders for the country is taking place right now,' said former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, 'and neither side is handling it very well.' The Gore campaign appears to have calculated that the automatic recount in Florida will not give it victory, but that additional challenges to the balloting there may create a decisive shift of evidence and public sentiment in favor of the idea that the vice president won. But with the Bush troops digging in on the other side, America is headed down a path that has no real precedent, toward a battle with no easy end. Coming not two years after a brutally partisan impeachment crisis, the election confrontation could test the idea of a governing consensus as it has not been tested in more than a century."

Cue the scary music.

The Boston Globe's David Shribman offers this only-in-America analysis: "Not only a close election. Not only a close election that comes down to the electoral votes of one state. Not only a close election that comes down to the electoral votes of one state that happens to be governed by one candidate's brother. Not only a close election that comes down to the electoral votes of one state that happens to be governed by one candidate's brother and also is itself split almost evenly.

"No this was an election with all of the above, plus claims of voting irregularities and confusing ballots, too. These are thoroughly uncharted waters. In this atmosphere of contention and confusion, no precedents guide the course, no procedures set forth the path. In a country that defers many of its controversies to the verdict of an election, the result of the election itself has been deferred. In a nation whose majority-rule institutions sometimes obliterate the ambiguities of issues, the ambiguities now rule. In a culture that distills even its most meaningless conflicts into winners and losers, there is no winner and no loser."

Wrong. The media are winning. Although the television networks, which botched their Florida project not once but twice on Election Night, face the prospect of embarrassing House hearings next week.

As for The Post's military maneuvering, why limit the battleground to Florida? (Ah, we're back to the concept of Key Battleground States.) The Los Angeles Times maps it out: "Sowing further confusion, officials in Oregon said Gore had pulled ahead there in the fight for the state's seven electoral votes. But Gore's lead was so narrow 2,192 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast it could trigger a recount once all the votes are tallied.

"In New Mexico, with five electoral votes, a count of 67,000 ballots in Bernalillo County continued, with Gore clinging to a 10,000-vote lead over Bush. The ballots were not counted right away because of a computer error. With those two states and Florida still hanging in the balance, Gore had 255 electoral votes, Bush 246. Florida, with 25 electoral votes, still appeared to be the key to determining which candidate garners the 270 needed to claim the presidency.

"But Republicans added still more uncertainty Thursday by saying they might seek a recount in Iowa and Wisconsin, which Gore carried by fewer than 6,500 votes apiece. The Bush camp was awaiting the outcome in Florida before deciding how to proceed in those two states, which count for a total of 18 electoral votes."

Hope Dan, Tom and Peter didn't throw away those color-coded maps.

Lest anyone think that ballot problems exist only in the swamps of Florida, the Chicago Tribune reminds us that its area is still a contendah: "Nearly 2 million Cook County residents went to the polls this week and gripping a small stylus, punched pinholes in a computer card to vote for president and other offices. But somehow, 120,503 of them either failed to register a choice for president or rendered their choice unusable by piercing holes next to names of two or more candidates. County officials say the same thing happens every election year, yet hardly anyone complains about the punch card apparatus. Now, however, problems with a similar system in Florida have thrown the presidential election into chaos and triggered a wave of national hand-wringing about the shortcomings of the punch card system." l

The New York Times finds yet another weird scenario for this election: "Dec. 18, the day that presidential electors are to meet in 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia, may produce a political crisis if Florida's 25 votes are still in dispute. But the crisis will not be constitutional, scholars say, for the Constitution enables a president to be chosen even if a big state like Florida does not vote.

"Some commentators have suggested that the election would be thrown to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives if neither Vice President Al Gore nor Gov. George W. Bush of Texas gets a majority of the 538 electors for whom Americans voted on Tuesday. But the Constitution requires only that a winning candidate have the votes of 'a majority of the whole number of electors appointed.' If Florida's votes are not resolved by then, or if a legal restraining order bars Gov. Jeb Bush from filing a certificate listing Florida's electors, then Mr. Gore has enough votes from other states, if current vote totals stand and if his electors keep their pledges, to reach a majority of the 513 electors actually appointed. In either of those cases, or if either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush gets Florida's votes, the House of Representatives would have no role in choosing a president, other than to participate in a Jan. 6 ceremonial counting of the votes in a joint session with the Senate.

"The time gaps between actual voting, Electoral College meetings, Congressional certification of votes and an actual inauguration were dictated by bad roads in an era when it took President John Adams 17 days to get to the White House from Boston in 1800."

What progress now it takes only 17 hours of airport delays.

If you're fed up with the Election That Wouldn't Die, you've got company. "ENOUGH!" screams the New York Post's Andrea Peyser. "The most powerful men representing the most stable government of the earth's greatest nation are behaving like hysterical 2-year-olds battling like cannibals over a cookie.

" 'Mine!' 'Mine!' 'Mine!' 'Mine!!!!!'

" 'Mine!' shrieked Al Gore campaign manager William Daley. Yesterday, Daley called Florida's parody of an election an embarrassment of third-world proportions, 'an injustice unparalleled in our history.' Certainly, a man whose father stole an election 40 years ago knows of what he speaks.

" 'Mine!' came back George W. Bush chairman Don Evans. 'The Democrats who are politicizing and distorting these events risk doing so at the expense of our democracy.' Will everyone take a Valium. Please! "

The late-night guys are wallowing in the post-game action, as the Washington Times reports." 'George W. Bush is not president of the United States. Al W. Gore is not president of the United States,' observed CBS' David Letterman. 'What do you say we just leave it that way?"

As for Jay Leno: "I dreamed these aliens from outer space landed and they said to me, 'Take us to your leader,' and I didn't know what to do...The rest of the world is getting nervous. Like today, the Chinese said, 'We don't know who to write our checks to.' " Leno has also wondered if the Florida race will end up being decided "by Elian Gonzalez's crazy relatives."

Now for the fighting. Rush Limbaugh actually compares the Gore strategy to that of Johnnie Cochran: "There doesn't seem to be any end, and that bothers me, especially when I listen to the Gore people on TV. Jack Quinn, Mark Fabiani, Chris Lehane, and other spokespeople are all saying this can't possibly end by five o'clock Wednesday. That tells me that the vote count isn't the last word with these people which, I gather, would be true even if they won. Then you've got the Reverend Jackson down there, and all these people out there in Palm Beach County protesting because they may have voted for Buchanan by mistake, and Democrats who want the twice-punched ballots to be voted again.

"In my opinion, the goal of all this is to create so much confusion and doubt, that George W. Bush will be pressured to accept Al Gore's popular vote victory and concede for the good of the country. In the OJ trial, it was called jury nullification. Now, it's 'voter nullification.' "

MSNBC's Eric Alterman frames the question not just from the opposite end of the spectrum, but of the galaxy: "Will the nation and the news media let the Republicans steal this presidential election?"

After all the preelection chatter about how Gore might lose the popular vote but seize the presidency with a narrow Electoral College win, he writes: "Funny, how nobody seems talking that way today. Gore has won the popular vote and, by all sensible measures, would certainly have won Florida, if Palm Beach County had used the kind of ballots that are clearly mandated by Florida law. It is an insult to one's intelligence to argue that more than 3,000 elderly Jews intentionally voted for Pat Buchanan, when every piece of anecdotal and statistical evidence clearly indicates that they intended their votes to go for Al Gore. (Desperation was apparent in Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer's pathetic contention that Palm Beach County is a 'Pat Buchanan stronghold'.)...

"Not surprisingly, the Republicans would rather win the presidency by stealth than sit still for an honest defeat. I don't find this shocking and I would expect the same from the Democrats. What is truly unbelievable however, is the fact that many of the media's biggest Bigfoots appear to feel the same way thereby taking their pre-election pro-Bush biases to new and hitherto unimagined heights. Listen to Tim Russert, among the most influential journalists in the entire country, advising Al Gore to be 'magnanimous and statesmanlike,' by suggesting he tell the nation, 'I won the popular vote. I gave up the presidency, in effect, because of the Electoral College and the Constitution.'

Salon's Anthony York marvels at some of the graybeards around W.: "While Bush claimed throughout his campaign that he was more than just his father's son, his administration seems to be shaping up as the second term the elder Bush never had. His Florida election monitor, of course, is former Bush Sr. secretary of state and campaign manager James Baker. And all of his presumptive appointments served in the first Bush administration Card as transportation secretary, Cheney as secretary of defense and Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rice served in the National Security Council under President Bush. The fact that the Texas governor is pressing on by forming a transition team has been called arrogant by the Gore camp...

"No matter who wins this election, there will be an initial tarnish on the new president-elect, who may find it difficult to work in Washington if serious questions about the election's legitimacy persist. Already, as a subtle way of questioning the legitimacy of a possible Bush victory, Democrats have been pointing out that regardless who wins the Florida challenge, Gore is still winning the nation's popular vote."

National Review's Kate O'Beirne dons her combat helmet and urges the GOPers to do the same: "Candidates wage campaigns in battleground states at the direction of their lieutenants to combat the opponent. Usually this language ends when the voting stops, but the Gore camp is back on a war footing. They plan to take Bush territory back, by any means possible. Republicans give little evidence that they appreciate that the other side has declared war. While the Democrats wage skirmishes all over Florida, with a major effort on the propaganda front, Republicans appear willing to rely on the recount procedure and remain above the hand-to-hand combat. Democrats have focused the public's attention on the 'disenfranchised' voters in Florida, as though invalidated or confusing ballots are a uniquely Floridian feature of elections. Republicans must mount a counteroffensive on the public-relations front. How many ballots were invalidated in Florida in 1996 when Clinton carried the state? In 1992, when Dole won? How many invalidated ballots are there in other states with narrow margins of victory?...

"Republicans must explain that in virtually every election there are confusions, irregularities, or hanky-panky. This year, Bush may have been disadvantaged north of Florida. But the public wants closure, and this election is over. If GOP voters in the Panhandle didn't bother voting because the networks called their state for Gore, before all the Florida polls had closed, why aren't they on TV complaining like the dopey Palm Beach voters who were victims of their own inattention? There are also GOP rumors that Gore supporters are contacting Republican electors. If this is true, the Republican party ought to have these electors at press conferences, fingering Democrats for this intimidation."

Jonah Goldberg of National Review also opens fire on the Gore side and invokes Monica in the process: "One wonders how comfortable the Democrats are in their belief that the next president of the United States should be decided virtually entirely by Democratic voters too stupid or enfeebled to decipher a ballot selected by a Democratic supervisor that over 100,000 other Democrats had no trouble using this year (or in years past). None of this matters a whit to the Gore campaign. Indeed, it seems they are determined to run a Lewinsky-scandal electoral strategy. While Al Gore himself postures amidst the clouds, his surrogates run a door-to-door ground war marked by bad faith, demagoguery, and passive-aggressive legal maneuvering designed to run out the clock in their favor. How else to explain Jesse Jackson's relentlessly shameful mau-mauing over the 'disproportionate' 'disenfranchisement' of blacks? This may be a winning political strategy, as long as Gore's lead in the popular vote continues and ordinary citizens remain unconcerned with politics. But Gore's lead in the popular vote is constantly thinning, and with the continued counting of over a million absentee and overseas ballots nationwide, it is far from clear it won't evaporate entirely."

America Held Hostage, day three.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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