Why Gore Has the Right to Fight
It's not about changing the rules. What he has wanted all along is one fair recount
Who is being unreasonable here? Who is being stubborn and
irresponsible? Who is putting victory at all costs ahead of the
will of the people and the good of the country? Whose selfish
ambition is trampling the rule of law? Who is causing bitterness
and alienation that will linger long after the last chad of
Election 2000 is swept away? Is it Al Gore? Or George W. Bush?
This is a dispute that the Bush side is winning on a simple but
effective strategy of decibels and repetition. But consider what
is not in dispute.
It is indisputable that on Election Day, more citizens expressed
a preference for Gore than for Bush. Nevertheless Gore has
renounced any attempt to fiddle with the results in the Electoral
College. By contrast, it was reported that some Bush advisers
discussed plans before the election to try to challenge the
Electoral College result if--as seemed more likely at the
time--Bush got more popular votes but Gore led in electors.
It is indisputable that a badly designed ballot in Palm Beach
County misdirected or disqualified thousands of votes intended
for Gore. It is beyond reasonable dispute that those votes would
have given Gore a clean win in Florida. Nevertheless, Gore
offered to forswear any effort to claim those votes if Bush
agreed to a fair and thorough recount of ballots as they were
actually cast. Bush said no.
It is indisputable that ballot-counting machines routinely fail
to count many legitimate ballots. The Governor of Texas, one
George W. Bush, signed a law treating dimpled chads as legitimate
votes; the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, now realizes
that only a desperate Democrat could take such a position.
However, some ballots uncounted by the machines are legitimate by
any standard. The Gore position is: in a tight race, let's count
every legitimate ballot (and argue about the close calls). The
Bush position is: throw them all away.
Which side in this dispute will "do anything to win"? It is
Republicans, not Democrats, who poison the well by questioning
the other side's patriotism. Where is George W.--the great
reacher-out, the great healer--while that is going on? It is the
Bush machine, not the Gore machine, that encouraged supporters to
storm the office where Miami-Dade officials were trying to count
votes. It is Republican leaders in Tallahassee and Washington,
not Democratic ones, who weave lurid scenarios of legislative
intervention if they don't get their way. So which side is trying
to "change the rules in the middle of the game"?
Anyway, it is not the middle of the game. The game is over. We're
trying to determine the score. And it's not a game, for heaven's
sake! As others have noted, you don't get a gimme for 25
electoral votes. And, for that matter, it's not a question of
changing the rules. The dispute is about what the rules are. And
turning to the courts to settle such disputes is part of the
It astonishes me to turn on the tube and see a lawyer on the Bush
team accusing Gore of bringing lawsuits until he gets the result
he wants. What an accusation! This is at a time when Bush has
just taken a state-election dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bush, more than Gore, has been trying to overturn laws as written
with fanciful constitutional arguments. Both sides are pursuing
all their legal options with a vengeance. But apparently when
Bush does it, he's vindicating the rule of law. When Gore does
it, he's trying to change the rules.
At any hour, day or night, there is a Republican on TV
complaining with a straight face that Al Gore will keep demanding
recounts until he has enough votes for victory. What Gore has
wanted all along is one thorough recount. It is the Bush side
that has been purposely running out the clock. There are actual,
substantive disputes here too, of course. Reasonable people can
differ about dimpled chads, and even about recount deadlines. And
yes, the Gore side has made fatuous arguments of its own. But the
Republicans' campaign to delegitimize Gore's efforts has been
dishonest even by prevailing standards.
Imagine if a cousin of Al Gore's had called Florida for Gore on
election night. Imagine if a Democratic secretary of state were
determined to use her legendary "discretion" to shut off recounts
while her man was ahead. Think what the Bush team could do with
material like that. But they've done remarkably well with much
There was plenty of time for a fair and thorough recount after
Election Day, and there was nothing to stop Katherine Harris from
using her discretion to allow one. Al Gore says there's still
time. We all ought to hope he's right about that, because if he's
wrong--if it's too late--we have just done serious damage to
American democracy. Not fatal damage, to be sure. But just a
month ago we thought it was invulnerable.
Michael Kinsley is the editor of Slate.com