Bush v. Gore: Democrats brought a knife to a gunfight

Jeb's role in 2000 Florida recount
Jeb's role in 2000 Florida recount

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Story highlights

  • Gloria Borger explores Bush v. Gore, the endless election that has much to say about U.S. politics then and now
  • Borger: Democrats brought a knife to a gunfight; they were outclassed by GOP strategy, but things might be different now

Watch a CNN Special Report with Gloria Borger: "Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election," Monday at 9 p.m. ET

(CNN)It's been a trip in a time machine: Back 15 years to the confusion of Election 2000, and the resulting 36 days in Florida — a state whose governor, Jeb Bush, was the brother of the GOP candidate. Back to a tie presidential race that wound up decided by an unprecedented intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. Back to a very different time -- as we learned in reporting "The Endless Election" -- that still remains an unmatched moment in modern political history.

You could not have written this script in Hollywood, as photographer David Hume Kennerly told us. And it would be close to impossible to duplicate. Because -- even given all the fight and the heart and the struggle that was evident on both sides --there were overriding shared sentiments: Win, of course. Fight hard. But don't destroy the country along the way.
Gloria Borger
Looking back on this epic battle, as we did, a few things are clear: Communication, just 15 years ago pre-smartphone, pre-Twitter seems quaint, even ancient. On election night, when Gore was about to concede, his own war room had no idea that he had already called George W. Bush and was on his way to the War Memorial in Nashville to make it official. The scramble to find him, and hold him back, looks more Marx Brothers than modern -- and only because campaign staffers could not communicate. Imagine that.
    But that's really the least of it.
    Election 2000 was, in many ways, a turning point in American political history. Al Gore had won the national popular vote by more than half a million. But he lost the two most important votes: the one in the Electoral College and the one at the Supreme Court.

    Politics was transformed

    Not only was it the closest election in modern times -- and perhaps the hardest fought -- but in its retelling it soon becomes clear that politics itself was transformed. Bush versus Gore went from being a close election decided by the voters to one that moved to the courts. The lawyers took over. The candidates seemed more sideshow than center stage -- with detail-driven Gore managing his own legal strategy and Bush home in Texas, leaving it all to top man Jim Baker. To this day, some of the young Democratic guns who fought the fight look back on it as uneven -- the GOP with a clear game plan and strategy, the Democrats with varying views of how to proceed and how hard to fight.
    There was no precedent, no history as guide. Just two sides trying to see through the fog and discern a path to victory.
    Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, was the key to victory for both sides. The voting process in the state was a mess -- with poorly designed ballots and resulting irregularities in counting. Election night itself was a network television nightmare -- with Gore and Bush alternately declared victors in the state. And once the lawyers took over, well, it dragged on for 36 days. Until the Supreme Court decided the election.
    Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election
    Bush vs Gore The Endless Election_00011904

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    Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election 01:24
    In listening to the Democrats retell it (and yes, they're still not over it), it's clear that, in retrospect, they now see it as a moment after which they learned of the need to fight. As Gore Florida Senior Adviser Nick Baldick tells us in the documentary, the Democrats "brought a knife to a gunfight." Al Gore was the ultimate establishment candidate. And he had, after all, conceded on election night -- only to take it back. Some on his team were worried about the "sore loser" label and how it might affect his future political plans. After eight years of Bill Clinton, somehow the Democrats seemed to have less fight in them than the GOP, which was itching to get back the White House.
    The Gore pooh-bahs, who managed the details from D.C. at the Naval Observatory, were different from the Democratic warriors on the ground. Michael Whouley, Nick Baldick, Ron Klain, to name a few, were in the thick of everything in Florida. They wanted to win. Period. And to this day, they argue over vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman's comments on "Meet the Press" in which he argued that late absentee military ballots should be given "the benefit of the doubt," a statement that caused Gore partisans to go into orbit because they believed Lieberman had handed Republicans a strategic — if not actual— path to victory.

    A lesson Democrats haven't forgotten

    Even 15 years later, Democrats bemoan their inability to match the clear and singular goals and message of James Baker and his GOP team: Bush won, and Team Bush was in Florida to preserve a victory, not count votes. It was a lesson in messaging the Democrats have not forgotten.
    While Team Gore undoubtedly fought and fought hard, the candidate himself did not want to appear to be taking to the streets to win. Demonstrations were limited. Congressional visits to Florida were limited, too. Gore wanted to be a statesman in a dogfight. As Whouley told us, "When you're in a fight, the first person who stops fighting always loses." It still hurts.
    From Day One, Team Bush led by Jim Baker had a plan and stuck to it. Get the case out of Florida (where the courts were dominated by Democrats) and into the Supreme Court. An odd federalization of a state issue, especially for a Republican, but Baker had no qualms about it when pressed by conservatives. "Do you want to be ideologically pure or do you want to win?" he told his fellow Republicans. The answer was self-evident.
    Fifteen years later, there's no one saying the Republicans stole the election, because they didn't. What's stunning is that both sides seem to agree on what actually happened: As Baldick says, "I think more people went to the polls intending to vote for Al Gore for president than George Bush in Florida." And GOP operative Mac Stipanovich, who became Secretary of State Katherine Harris' brain, told us, "I believe the people who went to the polls that day and voted elected George Bush. I believe the people who went to the polls that day and intended to vote probably elected Al Gore."
    So, it comes down to this: Maybe -- just maybe -- more people went to the polls intending to vote for Al Gore. But you need to count votes, not intentions. And that was the crux of the problem. In a series of post-election studies done by both the media and academics, the result is ambiguous: Bush likely would have won the statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, by a small margin. But Gore would have likely won a statewide recount of all disputed ballots — a process his team never requested.

    Supreme Court was forever changed

    As for the Supreme Court itself, it's hard to argue against the notion that the image of the court was forever changed. Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley says he expected a political decision, "I was cynical because they [the Republicans] have five appointees and I know that everybody thinks the Supreme Court is not political but they all get there by politics. They're appointed by some politician, i.e. the President of the United States."
    GOP lead Supreme Court attorney Ted Olson obviously argues otherwise. "The process that was taking place in Florida was crazy, and had to be stopped, and ballots had to be counted in a sensible, consistent way," he told us. But here's a fact: in its decision, the court made it clear it was not to be construed as precedent-setting. So what does that mean for the future? "Well, what they're doing is they're stamping this ticket good for this day only," Gore Supreme Court lawyer David Boies explained. "And you don't typically stamp Supreme Court decisions good for this day only." The court knew it was deciding an election and to this day, it remains a matter of dispute among some remaining members of the court.
    If this circumstance occurred today (and it could, given the divided country and the sorry state of some statewide election systems) it would be different. Social media would transform the entire ordeal. The candidates would be forced to behave differently, with rallies and demonstrations and maybe even political ads. The bitterness, which was evident then, would be more evident now. This is still a country divided, only more so. The fight would be different, no doubt about it. Not necessarily better, just different.
    Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw rightly makes the case that, throughout the 36 days, democracy prevailed. "There were no tanks in the street. And there were no National Guard units that had to be called up, because people were not out in the streets, you know, ready to trash buses and businesses. That's a great tribute to this country."
    He's right, and that's a plus. One can only hope that would be the case today. But it's hard to predict.