Makeup Call

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POLITICS SEPTEMBER 11, 2006

Makeup Call

Not very long ago, the term conservatives most often used to describe Katherine Harris was "rock star." Writing in The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz praised her as "a local official in Florida who looked to the letter of the law for guidance at a time when we needed the law the most." Among conservatives, this was one of the more measured assessments. In the eyes of her admirers, she was Mother Teresa, Marie Curie, and Joan of Arc all rolled into one--passionate, deeply moral, and honest as the day is long. Not only that, she was also smart as a whip and a looker to boot. ("In person, Mrs. Harris comes across as brainy, ultra-petite and softly glamorous," reported The Washington Times.)

In the last few months, though, many of Harris's starry-eyed fans have undertaken a critical reappraisal of their erstwhile heroine. It turns out that she may not be a paragon of sound judgment after all. Today, conservatives tend to describe Harris with synonyms for "insane."

The newfound Republican doubts about Harris spring not from a single event, but an accumulation of small, bizarre episodes. She made a speech about a terrorist plot (to blow up a power grid in Indiana) that turned out to be wholly imaginary. She accused newspapers of publishing doctored photographs of her. She has raged against her staff, accusing aides of secretly working for her opponent. Since 2003, while serving as a member of Congress and running for Senate, she has had four chiefs of staff and four press secretaries leave her office. In 2006 alone, more than a dozen staffers have quit. Many of them have described her erratic behavior and irrational tirades to the press.

Harris's ongoing meltdown has rendered her politically radioactive. Her November opponent, Democrat Bill Nelson, was initially considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate. Yet Harris's campaign has been such a disaster that polls show her losing by 30 points. A number of Republicans, including, reportedly, representatives of Jeb Bush, have pleaded with her to quit the race so the party can put up a stronger challenger, but she has adamantly refused, insisting that God wants her to be a senator. (This sort of rationale is notoriously difficult to refute.) Indeed, appeals to reason by her fellow Republicans seem only to have stiffened her resolve. Jeb Bush's efforts to recruit another GOP challenger "drove her crazy, but it didn't take her long to get there," former Harris pollster Ed Rollins told The Miami Herald.

 

Oh, you don't say. It's gratifying to see Republicans acknowledge that Harris is a batty, irrational megalomaniac who's in way over her head. But some of us picked up on that quite some time ago. When she first emerged on the national scene during the Florida recount, Harris was known as a "polarizing" figure--one who inspired wildly different reactions among conservatives and liberals. That the assessment of Harris is increasingly a matter of bipartisan consensus is all to the good. And yet, it seems that the full historic implications of this new consensus have not been sufficiently explored.

Harris, after all, played a singularly decisive role in making George W. Bush president. As Florida's secretary of state, she initially forbade counties from conducting their own recounts, delaying the process for weeks so that, when the recount eventually started, it could not be completed in time for the deadline to certify electors. As Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University political scientist and author of The Battle for Florida, told The Tampa Tribune, "It would never have gone to the Supreme Court if she had simply allowed the counties to complete their recounts." Deadlock, The Washington Post's history of the recount, concurred: "What is clear is that Bush enjoyed an enormous advantage because of the presence of his brother in the governor's office and Katherine Harris as secretary of state." Democrats and Republicans still view the Florida recount as divergently as they once viewed Harris. Now that a new consensus is forming that Harris is a loon, though, shouldn't a new consensus on the recount she conducted follow?

The full extent of Harris's influence has faded from the public memory because of two subsequent events. The first is the Bush v. Gore decision, which made the Supreme Court, not Harris, seem to be the final arbiter of the election. Left forgotten by the Bush v. Gore controversy was the fact that several of Harris's interventions on behalf of Bush had been deemed illegal by the Florida courts, and they were never subsequently vindicated. These included her insisting that recounted ballots not accepted by the November 14, 2000, deadline were invalid and her maintaining that she lacked the discretion to accept manual recounts. In both cases, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against her unanimously.

What aided Harris even more was a 2001 recount of the Florida ballots by the National Opinion Research Center, conducted for a media consortium, which seemed to suggest that Bush would have won even without her or the Supreme Court. The media recount came out just weeks after the September 11 attacks, and the participating newspapers appeared to bend over backward to avoid tainting President Bush's legitimacy. Some press accounts asserted that a statewide recount--which Al Gore had futilely pleaded with Bush to accept and which the Florida Supreme Court ultimately ordered--"would have favored Bush," as The Washington Post put it.

This conclusion, however pleasing to the national psyche, was totally false. (See "Count Down," November 26, 2001.) It rested on the assumption that only ballots that had registered no vote at all--those pesky hanging chads--would have been counted. In reality, several counties were examining ballots that had been initially disqualified for registering two votes. There turned out to be a large net gain for Gore in such ballots, which typically included a vote for Gore as well as a write-in vote for Gore. The voting machines initially disqualified these votes, but a hand examination counted them because the intent of the voter was clear. And, if those votes had been included, Gore would have carried Florida.

And yet, both the Bush v. Gore decision and the media recount prompted Harris and her supporters to proclaim loudly she had been vindicated. (Democrats, meanwhile, eager not to be seen as sore losers, mostly held their tongues.) As a result, the initial, correct impression that Harris had steered the recount toward Bush faded, and her self-proclaimed role as neutral arbiter of the law stood mostly unchallenged.

 

Harris remained an icon among conservatives until very recently, and the degeneration of her image from wise public servant to nutbag has been abrupt. Most Republicans have chosen to treat her eccentric displays as a sudden and unforeseeable outbreak of delirium--ones that happened to coincide with the moment that she became a strategic liability for the party. After Harris floated unsubstantiated rumors that Joe Scarborough (a former GOP member of Congress whom Harris viewed as a potential primary rival) may have killed one of his interns, Scarborough noted, "That was the first clue that something wasn't right with Katherine Harris."

In fact, there were plenty of clues to that effect from the very beginning. One such clue was Harris's oft-stated belief that she was the modern-day incarnation of the biblical heroine Queen Esther. ("If I perish, I perish," she would proclaim dramatically, perhaps confusing Esther with Jesus.) During the recount, Harris made this analogy to her staff so frequently that, as the Post reported, her underlings finally begged, "No more Esther stories!"

Or there was the time, during the heat of the recount, when Harris told reporters, "I dreamed that I would ride into this stadium [the site of the Florida/Florida State football game] on a horse, carrying the FSU flag in one hand and the [election] certification in the other--while everyone around me cheered." Some of us took this statement as another fairly strong clue that Harris was something less than the dispassionate, ultra-professional public servant her supporters made her out to be.

Harris's many confidence-shaking displays as a Senate candidate really ought not to come as such a surprise to the GOP. When it first became clear, immediately after the 2000 election, that Harris would be directing the process that would determine the next president, Republican leaders panicked. In her first press conference, two days after the election, she was vague and ill-informed and didn't evince a sense that she would, or could, take control of the recount as the Republicans desired. "Harris knew so little about the legal and procedural issues that the chances of this kind of hesitancy from her were even greater," reported Jeffrey Toobin in Too Close to Call, a history of the recount.

Republicans close to Bush dispatched J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a veteran Florida Republican lawyer well-versed in election law, to serve as Harris's close adviser. From that point on, decisions became more decisive and uniformly pro-Bush. When asked by the Post if he was coordinating his decisions with the Bush campaign, Stipanovich tellingly refused to offer a denial. Certainly, Harris's adversaries did not see her as the brains of the operation. Ron Klain, a lawyer for Gore's recount team, recalls that, every time his side would raise an objection to one of Harris's decrees in a face-to-face meeting, she would reply, "Thank you, but I've made my decision." "She couldn't defend her position," says Klain.

Today, of course, it is the Florida Republican Party experiencing the frustration that once only Gore's legal team knew. As Harris likes to tell supporters, by way of defending her suicidal Senate campaign, "I have a little bit of a history of sticking to my guns."

Florida may be the last remaining taboo of the Bush presidency. Conservatives have questioned Bush's domestic record, his foreign policy, even (in the recent case of Scarborough) his intelligence. None have bothered to reinterpret Florida. But the bedrock assumption of the conservative interpretation of Florida is that Harris is a sober, competent, and upstanding public servant. If you assume that Harris is none of those things, then the whole denouement of 2000--and, by extension, the very legitimacy of Bush's presidency--takes on a strikingly different cast.

What do you say, conservatives? Now that some of you are willing to contemplate that Bush has been a disappointment--or even a disaster--is it too much to consider the possibility that he never should have become president in the first place?

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