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Ominous portents, fighting words

For Bush and the GOP, a stop-at-nothing strategy could win the presidency and spark a constitutional crisis

By Eric Alterman


George W. Bush, attacked the Florida Supreme Court ruling Thursday and signaled his willingness Wednesday to circumvent the courts and have the matter decided by the Florida legislature and possibly the House of Representatives.

Nov. 22 - The country is approaching a political danger zone whose potential peril may soon exceed the Republican Congress's 1998 assault on the Constitution. Impeachment, for all its circus-like qualities, was a constitutionally directed process overseen by the US Supreme Court. But so bent on victory is George W. Bush that he seems ready to undermine not only the power, but also the legitimacy of the Florida Supreme Court. His campaign paints its legal decisions as merely another political tactic by the Gore campaign to try to steal his presidency under the cover of manual recounts.

Prepare to enter a political danger zone, in which the law is debased and politics rule.

BUSH ANGRILY ACCUSES the Florida Supreme Court not of interpreting the law, but of "rewriting" it and "overreaching" its powers. He follows on the irate indictment of Bush family consigliere, James A. Baker III, who attacked the seven justices who ruled unanimously against the Bush campaign. Baker implied that the court, which was appointed exclusively by Democratic governors, was simply stretching its mandate to elect Al Gore. A REAL STRETCH

"The Gore campaign is working to try to change the counting rules and standards in the three counties that are still manually recounting so as to overcome Governor Bush's continuing lead," Baker complained Tuesday. Bush, speaking the next day, insisted that the Gore team was working to change the "legitimate result" of the vote after the votes had taken place, as if the Florida Supreme Court had no right to interpret the will of its people. This constituted, he said, "a stretch."

The Bush/Baker war on the Florida Supreme Court appears to be laying the groundwork for the final result of the vote recount to be overturned in the state legislature, if possible, and the U.S. House of Representatives, if necessary. Baker hinted at this when he suggested that "no one should now be surprised" if Florida's Republican legislature decides to overturn what Bush oddly called court's "legalistic" decision. (Bush said he would leave this decision to Baker.) This would be a truly remarkable turn of events.

To undo the lawful ruling of the Florida Supreme Court, lawmakers would either have to pass a new, post-facto law to overturn the court's decision, or simply ignore the vote and choose its own slate of electors. Either decision would require the explicit assistance and perhaps even the signature of the Republican candidate's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; hardly an action that the rest of the nation can be expected to view as fair or legitimate. GOING TO EXTREMES

Going beyond the legislature to the U.S. House of Representatives to claim victory, however, would be an even more extreme step, making a mockery of George W. Bush's and the Republicans' entire political philosophy of preferring local control over all matters to federal authority. Yet we have already heard House Republican Whip Tom DeLay advise his colleagues in a memo that it may be necessary to challenge the seating of a Florida delegation to the Electoral College that does not plan to hand the vote to George Bush. Al Gore has disavowed any efforts to challenge the results of an Electoral College vote or "turn" any Republican electors to his side. The Bush camp has so far been silent on this issue.


The Bush/Baker war on the Florida Supreme Court appears to be laying the groundwork for the final result of the vote recount to be overturned in the state legislature, if possible, and the U.S. House of Representatives, if necessary.

Some of the more astute commentators on this crisis have noticed a paradox in the attitudes of the two competing teams. One of the more personally attractive qualities of candidate "W" was the fact that he didn't seem too wrapped up in being president in the first place. He could win, he could lose, but as he said, "life would go on." Al Gore's ambitions, however, appeared naked and all-consuming.

Yet each man's party appears to be operating from exactly the opposite assumptions. Democrats can take or leave the presidency this time around, and that's putting it generously. Congressional leaders and party activists believe they will have an excellent chance of picking up enough seats to control Congress next time around against a weakened President Bush, and do not see that they have much to gain from a cautious, centrist, and perhaps fatally damaged Gore presidency. Republicans, on the other hand, cannot bear the notion of another four years of the Clinton/Gore regime they have been desperately trying to overthrow for six years. They will take the presidency on any terms at all - short of asking Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf to lead a land invasion of Palm Beach County.


You can see the difference in the tepid and rather nervous support that Gore's efforts have garnered among professional Democrats. His most outspoken advocates have been outsiders like Jesse Jackson and Alan Dershowitz, along with Bob Kerrey, who was himself a bit of an outsider in the Senate and is now retiring to academia. Nearly every Republican quoted in the media, however, seems to be fighting a losing battle against a fury so profound that their language sometimes harkens back to some of the ugliest moments of Germany's Weimar Republic.

Pundit George Will, reporting as if from another planet, discerns what he terms "a stunning asymmetry" in the "ferocity gap," as "Democrats fight for power with a frenzy born of material greed" while the Republicans show nothing but good manners. Here are a few examples from the past few days of Republican timidity:

-A Bush campaign aide in Tallahassee terms the Florida Supreme Court a Democratic "banana jury."

-Majority Whip Tom DeLay calls the court a collection of liberal activists who have "arbitrarily swept away thoughtfully designed statutes ensuring free and fair elections and replaced them with their own political opinions."

-Rep. J. C. Watts, fourth-ranking official in the House majority, labels Al Gore "a candidate who will not win or lose honorably, but will try to do so through cut-throat tactics that eight years under President Clinton have taught him."

-Former Republican Secretary of Education and Republican pundit William Bennett insists, "Al Gore is trying to steal this election [with] thuggish tactics."

-The editors of the Wall street Journal accuse Gore and the Democrats of planning legally-mandated "coup d'etat."


Nearly every Republican quoted in the media seems to be fighting a losing battle against a fury so profound that their language harkens back to some of the ugliest moments of Germany's Weimar Republic.

How will it all end? My money, I am sorry to say, is on George Bush. carried a report over the weekend that Gore's top advisers, Warren Christopher and William Daley were already planning to talk him into quitting if the key court rulings did not go his way. Joe Lieberman was not even willing to risk his safe Senate seat on this election. They will run away from this fight the first chance they get. Meanwhile, Al Gore has been too dutiful a young man his entire life to resist the pressure of party elders to throw in the towel when the going gets rough and the public's patience begins to wear thin - particularly when he is looking stronger than ever for 2004.


The Republicans, meanwhile, appear to have an endless array of tactical attacks in their arsenal. Hypocrites they may be, but they will at the very least be able to tie the election up in knots long enough to convince wavering Democrats to jump ship. They have already tried to short-circuit the democratic process through the arbitrary rulings of a minor party functionary, Bush campaign co-chair and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, before being publicly humiliated by the court. They have also contravened their own statements about the desire to keep the entire matter out of the courts and in the hands of the "people" by beating the Gore team into the judge's chambers. Both of these schemes backfired, but an almost endless array remain to be tried.

The Republicans can purposely slow down the manual count in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to a snail's pace in order to sabotage their to meet the court-imposed deadline of 5 pm Sunday. They can challenge every ruling of the Florida Supreme Court in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter may be allowed under a something called the Rooker- Feldman Doctrine, which allows a plaintiff to go directly to the Supreme Court when the decision of a state court raises a constitutional question. They can use their advantage in the Florida legislature and the governor's office to overturn a new count. They can ram whatever they want through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives if all else fails.

And no matter what they do, they will have the support of a significant portion of the punditocracy, who have come to share their hatred of Bill Clinton and Al Gore with a vehemence that long ago traversed the boundaries of rationality.

And what of George W. Bush? Will he call off the dogs, stand on principle as the "healer" he claims to be, and instruct his brother and Tom DeLay not to use the power of their respective offices in any way that might forever stain his administration with the taint of illegitimacy? I beg the reader's indulgence for my last sentence. After all, I am paid to write political analysis, not fairy tales.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), November 22, 2000


The Sunshine State has been quite overcast lately.

There are many pits in the oranges.

Every vote counts only once!

-- dinosaur (, November 22, 2000.

Your "political analysis" has all the legetimacy of, to use your words, "the ugliest moments of the Weimar Republic.

If anything is stop-at-nothing, its the manual recounts being done without a uniform definition of what is a vote. Texas does allow manual recounts, but these are done with a defined process.

Katherine Harris is not "arbitrary, but merely doing her job according to florida law.

The Florida Supreme Court ruling does appear to go beyond the jurisdiction of a court. Countering this high-level illegetimacy may take unusual measures. Its the Demmmocratic win-at-all-costs who have brought this about.

-- johnn littmann (, November 22, 2000.

Alterman...get yer tin foil hats on now!

George Orwell's 1984 lives on in this piece. Up is down, black is white, Gore is Good. This is NOT Gore trying to steal an election. Riiiiiighhhht Big Brother.....roflmao.

-- David (, November 22, 2000.

Eric Alterman truly lives in an alternate reality.

-- Flint (, November 22, 2000.

Naw, Flint, he lives in a *liberal* reality -- where the phrase "rule of law," more often than not, is a code phrase for "a favorable/liberal decision rendered by a federal court."

-- Stephen M. Poole (, November 23, 2000.

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