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Bill Schneider sorts out the political mess

November 22, 2000
Web posted at: 4:58 p.m. EST (2158 GMT)

Bill Schneider
Bill Schneider  

CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider is in Washington, gauging political drama in the ongoing race for U.S. President.

Q: Have we seen any new polls showing what the public feels about Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling?

Schneider: The last poll we did was over the weekend, when several polls were taken. Americans were patient, but their patience had limits. They wanted to see this brought to a conclusion within the next month, which basically is by the time the Electoral College is supposed to meet, in mid-December. I think that to stretch it beyond that and to put the electoral vote and the certification for president in jeopardy would be objectionable to most Americans.

But they were generally patient with all the wrangling. They wanted to see a fair and accurate vote count. They didn't want to rush to judgment. Their general view was that a machine count was probably more accurate than a hand count, but the public's view is, "Whatever, just get it counted, get it done." They've got no strong priorities or preferences.

Q: Do the American people see the ruling as a partisan move by a court appointed by Democrats?

Schneider: I don't think so. I think they see it as the court trying to be fair and essentially doing what the court said it was doing, which was giving voters the final authority over the election. But it has created all kinds of complications and legal actions. Bad feelings have intensified partisanship immeasurably around the country. Republicans believe that Gore is trying to steal the election. George W. Bush just encouraged that belief when he came out and made a statement today, by saying that he believes he won Florida and the other side is determined to keep counting ballots until they change the outcome. That means: "They're trying to steal the election."

That kind of bitter partisanship is building by the minute. We saw evidence of it in our poll last weekend, when we asked people: If he is declared the winner, would you accept Al Gore as the legitimate president? 80 percent of Americans said yes, but 41 percent of Bush supporters said, no, they would not accept Gore as a legitimate president. It's not a majority, but it's a disturbing number, and it's bound to be growing.

Q: There have been reports in the media saying that very same thing, that voters who chose Gore are often willing to accept either candidate as president, but more voters who chose Bush say they will absolutely not accept Gore as president should he win.

Schneider: That's right. Bush supporters are becoming more and more irreconcilable, and my guess is that the court decision has further inflamed their hostility. The hardcore Republican partisans probably do see it as a partisan decision. I don't think most Americans do, but I think the hardcore Republicans probably do, and they are becoming more and more irreconcilable to an outcome where Gore wins.

I describe Democrats as frustrated and becoming more angry at being demonized by the Bush campaign. They've been told they were trying to steal election. Democrats don't believe they're trying to steal the election. They're frustrated. They believe, number one, that Gore got more votes than Bush, and he did nationwide by the national count. Number two, they believe that more people went to the polls to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush in Florida, but many of them cast spoiled ballots because of the confusing butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county and because of bad voter instructions in Duvall county.

They believe that they cannot prove what they know, which is that more people came out to vote for Al Gore. That doesn't make them hostile or angry, and it doesn't lead them to believe that Bush is trying to steal the election. They're just frustrated and they think that a careful, thorough ballot count may help them make their case.

Q: On CNN Tuesday night, Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno was saying that this ruling could open the door to what could become a constitutional crisis. What do you think?

Schneider: I don't want to use the word constitutional crisis lightly. The Constitution has procedures for dealing with all this. Some of it is constitutional, some of it is under federal statute. There are established procedures -- rarely used -- to deal with this, but those procedures, most of them statutory, are going to be deeply controversial because they're highly partisan. The only time they really were applied was in 1876 when they were highly partisan. The Republicans just bullied their way through and got the result they wanted. The same thing could happen again, and that would be a very divisive outcome.

You could have the Florida legislature naming their own slate of electors for Bush because the legislature is controlled by Republicans. That is allowed by federal statute if the state hasn't certified a slate of electors by December 12. That is perfectly allowed, it's permissible, but it would look like a partisan usurpation by the legislature. [Bush observer James] Baker hinted at that last night.

You could have competing slates of electors going to Congress to be counted in January. The Republican Congress has, under [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay's guidance, been investigating their role in all this. A Democratic slate for Gore could by law be rejected by majority vote of both the House and the Senate, each separately. Republicans control the House; the Senate looks like it might end up a 50-50 tie, so it wouldn't work unless some Democrat voted with the Republicans. But that could happen.

All these are procedures, they are in law, they are rarely used, and they would deeply intensify partisan hostility.

Q: Are we going to see a very divided political system come January?

Schneider: We are in the realm of the unknown and the unprecedented. It is rash to make predictions. Anybody who knows what's going to happen in January is grossly misinformed.

I'm not going to make any predictions. It could up being divisive, partisan, gridlock. It could end up being that grown-ups come forward and say, "Look, we've got to end this in a mature, responsible way." That's what the voters clearly want. Who would that be, I don't know.

It could be that given the way the vote counts have been going that in the next five days, Gore won't be able to make it, and he doesn't get enough recounted ballots to overtake Bush's lead. In that case, it's over, according to the court. That is not a partisan Bush statement, it's just a way of saying that's a possibility for an outcome. If Gore can't get enough recounted votes to overtake Bush's lead by Monday morning at 9 a.m., it is over.

Bush also mentioned in his remarks that this was an effort by the judicial branch in Florida to change the law, to rewrite the election law. Most Americans, I believe, respect the judiciary as serious and independent and a neutral arbiter. Hardcore partisan Republicans don't. Number one, they know this court is appointed by Democrats. Number two, they resent all judicial activism as illegitimate. They have ever since abortion rights and school prayer decisions were handed down by the courts.

Anger at judicial activism is an ancient and deeply embedded conservative sentiment. Bush appealed to that in his statement, when he said that courts are rewriting the laws. That instantly touches a nerve among conservatives, just like the word "civil rights" touches a nerve among Democrats. Democrats talk about a person's civil rights being violated, you get an instantaneous response. Republicans talk about the courts rewriting the law, you get an instant emotional response.

What I'm suggesting is that Republicans, including Governor Bush are pushing those buttons... buttons that are calculated to create outrage among Republicans. We saw something today I have never seen in my life: a {disturbance} among Republicans in Miami. You don't see Republicans do that very much that we should fail to notice. That's because buttons are being pushed to create outrage. I'm not saying it's all cynical. I think they are angry. But I'm saying that those feelings are deep and they are intense.

There are a wide range of possible outcomes, from the disastrous to the peaceful. One of which, Gore not getting enough votes in the recount, makes the entire discussion moot. We don't know what will happen. Anyone who does is grossly misinformed.


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Wednesday, November 22, 2000

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