Losing It

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POLITICS DECEMBER 11, 2000

Losing It

Imagine that the events last week in Miami had been reversed. A canvassing board counting votes likely to make George W. Bush the next president is besieged by a crowd of Democratic operatives. A Democratic congressman nearby tells his aide to "shut it down," whereupon the throng begins to scream " Cheaters!" and "Fraud!," pounds on the door of the room to which the counters have retreated, and lets it be known that some 1,000 reinforcements, incited by racial appeals on a local radio station, will soon arrive on the scene. The board hastily decides a recount is no longer feasible.

Can anyone seriously doubt what would have happened next? Conservatives would have exploded in outrage, denouncing the triumph of the mob over the rule of law, demanding investigations, declaring any outcome achieved in such a manner to be illegitimate. And they'd be right.

But, far from questioning the Miami riot, conservatives have gone out of their way to justify and even applaud it. The first account of the event, penned by Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, praised Republicans for finally mustering the courage to "fight like Democrats." A subsequent justification by Noemie Emery in The Weekly Standard employs the moral logic of the Gambino family, skipping past any consideration of Republican thuggery to linger on Al Gore's "provocation," which consisted of "an invasion of lawyers ... the theater of mobs and protests, the frenzied attacks on public officials, the purposeful suppression of the votes of servicemen, the playing of the race card, and the whipping up of hatred against Gore's opponents." All those "provocations," of course, apply equally to the Bush campaign (except, of course, the "suppression" of military votes, which has clear parallels). And surely none of them justifies the violent intimidation of government officials trying to do their legal duty.

My point isn't that Republicans' response to the Miami mob shows that on every detail of the Florida controversy they're in the wrong. On some issues-- for instance, the discarding of the votes of servicemen overseas because the military often failed to postmark their ballots--they're right. The point is that they're no longer capable of reasoned distinctions. The wellspring of Republican resentment that built up over the course of the Clinton era--and that bubbled up during the government shutdown, impeachment, and the EliAn GonzAlez saga--has burst forth with unprecedented fury. Over the past three weeks conservatives have begun to exhibit what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style." The Republicans may well win the presidency. But, in so doing, I think they are going insane.


One defining characteristic of the paranoid style is the belief that one's enemies always act ruthlessly and in concert. Thus it has become an article of Republican faith that anyone connected in any way to the Democratic Party is inherently incapable of acting as anything other than an agent of Al Gore. From the outset, Bush's campaign has been guided by the certainty that Democratic canvassing boards would manufacture votes for Gore, and Democratic judges would manufacture law. And so the canvassing boards are deemed " grotesquely partisan" (David Tell in The Weekly Standard) and the Florida Supreme Court justices "demonstrable ideological partisans" (William Safire in The New York Times).


Yet the assumption that registered Democrats always act to further Gore's political interests just can't explain much of what has taken place in the last couple of weeks. Yes, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the right to a hand count superseded Florida's certification deadline. But it limited those hand counts to a tight, probably unachievable time frame. The Democratic canvassing board in Miami-Dade County declined to conduct the counts (perhaps in part as a result of the Miami riot), and the state Supreme Court wouldn't order it to do so. The Palm Beach board took a crucial vacation day and adopted the most constrictive standard permitted by law for determining voter intent--decisions that, taken together, may well have cost Gore the election. The Broward board, while conducting its hand count under a more liberal standard, actually produced a higher percentage of dimpled ballots for Bush than he had won in the county as a whole. If the Democratic judges and vote counters in Florida are all partisan lackeys, they're spectacularly incompetent ones.


Another feature of the paranoid style is the conviction that your side so intrinsically embodies the will of the people that any victories by your opponents are, prima facie, evidence that they have cheated. "This is not a liberal country; it is not a country predisposed to voting Democrat and liberal," the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners a week ago. "They've got to cheat in order to win big." Some Republicans have long believed that Democrats are prone to fraud. In 1992, GOP activist Grover Norquist warned that if Clinton won, he would rig the rules to win reelection, just as Democrats in Congress had before him. "They stacked the deck. They cheated. And so will a Clinton administration," he prophesied.


Emboldened by bush's dark references to "mischief" in his speech after the Florida Supreme Court's ruling allowing manual recounts, this fear has in the last week seized the GOP and its intelligentsia. It does not matter that the only credible evidence of vote-tampering to date has come at the hands of Republicans in Seminole and Martin Counties. "What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts," writes Hofstadter, "but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events." Conservatives have drawn together small bits of fact--a vote-punching machine spotted on eBay, a Democratic observer accused of eating a chad--to justify their deeply ingrained fears. A Wall Street Journal editorial claims the paper "would not be surprised to see 1, 000 Gore votes appear somewhere in the dead of night."


The most careful rendering of this particular form of illogic, however, has to be Tell's editorial in last week's Weekly Standard. It notes sarcastically that Florida's machine recount "by purest chance broke 80 percent in Al Gore's direction." (In fact, the machine recount added 0.0007 percent to Gore's total and 0.0002 percent to Bush's, reducing the margin by 0.0002 percent of the vote.) Based on this outcome, and without a single piece of corroborating evidence, the editorial declares: "In our bones, we're pretty sure what happened here. In the middle of the night, on November 8 ... the Democrats set about, fast as lightning, before anyone was watching, doing 'anything to win.'" Tell asserts that he's also "pretty sure" the vote theft was ordered by Gore personally.


There are, needless to say, alternative explanations for Gore's gains that are supported by real-world evidence. For instance, hole-punch voting machines common in Democratic counties are more likely to miss votes the first time around than the more sophisticated machines found more often in Republican counties. But such evidence is essentially beside the point. When the editors of the Standard say they know "in our bones" that Gore tried to steal the election, they're saying that their belief in Democratic fraud can be ascertained solely by understanding the malevolence of the Democrats, without any recourse to evidence at all.


To believe something like that, you have to look upon your enemies as being not merely wrong and not merely ambitious but utterly lacking in any principles whatsoever. Conservatives have lately explained Democratic venality as a function of what George Will calls "material greed." Democrats, according to this elucidation, depend on government largesse for their livelihood and thus naturally care more about winning than self-sufficient Republicans. Cleta Mitchell, a GOP election lawyer (and former Democrat) who has launched a new career in punditry, declares that the Democratic credo is " If we don't win, we don't eat."


This theory fails every possible test of verification. Polls over the last year have consistently shown that Democratic voters have less intense preferences in the presidential race than Republicans. And, at the elite level, the careerist ambitions of both campaigns' staffers are indistinguishable. Economic necessity, if anything, cuts the other way. If Gore loses, his advisers will take better-paid jobs on K Street. But these facts would suggest a moral symmetry between the two sides and are therefore dismissed. Bush, in the Republican mind, hopes to lead. Gore has--as innumerable conservatives have written--a "hunger for power."


None of this is to suggest that liberals have been the embodiment of dispassionate judgment during the Florida recount--nor that Gore has been the model of principled consistency. But there has been a real contrast in intellectual style between left and right. The organs of liberal opinion have generally labored to steer a middle path between the two candidates, resulting in evenhanded appeals to high-mindedness. Consider this typical offering from The New York Times: "Both candidates need to plan for their presidencies and also look to history for lessons in how to preserve the worthy old idea that whoever is president is president of all Americans." Or this one from The Washington Post: "If they are worthy of being president, the goal of both Al Gore and George W. Bush at this stage ought to be more than just winning."


But, while liberal opinion has urged Gore to take the high road, conservative opinion has demanded the opposite of Bush. A Wall Street Journal editorial headlined "The Squeamish GOP" laments that "Republicans are constrained by principle while Democrats are not." Almost the entire conservative press has taken up this theme, which Will calls "the ferocity gap." It is an intellectual process that justifies virtually any escalation on Bush's part as simply an effort to even the score.


In reality, Gore is the only candidate who has laid down any of the weapons at his disposal. Bush's campaign has vowed to use (in James Baker's words) " whatever remedies we may have," at one point suggesting that it would take its case simultaneously to the Florida legislature, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the House of Representatives. Gore, by contrast, has offered to extend the hand recount to Republican counties, appealed to his allies to blunt their harsher rhetoric, and forsworn efforts to flip electoral college votes on his behalf. It is quite likely, of course, that Gore has done this not out of genuine statesmanship but as a ploy to gain political advantage by seizing the moral high ground. But that's exactly the point: Gore was forced to do so because his supporters, for the most part, demand of him a level of restraint and intellectual consistency that Bush's do not.


Which is why he may lose. Among the talking heads, the prevailing wisdom for the last several years has been that fanaticism does not work as a political strategy. The lesson seemed borne out in the GOP's failures during impeachment and the government shutdown. In the current situation, commentators assured both parties that a dose of magnanimity would reap a public relations benefit outstripping any political cost. And yet Gore, who has come closest to following this advice, seems to be losing not only on the ground but also in the polls. It is comforting to believe that political reward follows from virtue. Alas, it is not always true.

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