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November 27, 2000
W's Triumph of the Will

By Robert Parry

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has claimed the mantle of president of the United States after one of the most brazen and effective power grabs in political history.

The loser of the national popular vote by about 337,000 votes and apparently not even the favorite of the six million Floridians who went to the polls, Bush assured his victory by deploying Republican foot soldiers to Florida and revving up the powerful conservative propaganda machine across the country.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bush even called to offer words of encouragement to GOP operatives who had physically intimidated the Dade County canvassing board before it abruptly reversed its decision to count disputed ballots and instead cast those 10,750 ballots aside. [For details, see below.] 

Now, barring an unlikely court ruling in the weeks ahead, the result of Bush's bare-knuckle strategy appears to be that the will of the American voters has been overturned for the first time in 112 years. The first popular-vote loser since Benjamin Harrison will ascend to the presidency.

In Bush's victory, the Republican Party also cast aside any remaining shreds of the notion that logical consistency has any place in modern politics.

Before the election, for instance, the Bush team feared that Vice President Al Gore would win the majority of the Electoral College while losing the popular vote to Bush.

In such an eventuality, the Republicans had prepared a national strategy that would have relied on talk radio and conservative pundits to demand that Gore step aside and accept the popular will. The Electoral College was to be denounced as an anti-democratic "relic" and Bush hailed as the choice of the people.

When it became clear that Bush would lose the popular vote but was in a position to claim Florida's 25 electoral votes and thus the Electoral College, the political strategy turned on a dime. The popular vote became an irrelevance and the Electoral College a revered institution of the Republic.

In the days since the election, the conservative media apparatus worked to create an atmosphere of inevitability and entitlement. Republican operatives insisted that Bush be declared the winner because he led in Florida, though by only a narrow margin and despite widespread complaints of irregularities.

Thousands of mostly elderly residents of Palm Beach apparently 10,000 or more had tried to vote for Gore, but were confused by an improperly designed ballot.

These citizens accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan or punched two holes in trying to correct their ballots. Bush supporters ridiculed them as morons who had disenfranchised themselves.

In other parts of Florida, African-American voters complained of receiving ballots already punched for Bush or of being turned away from polling places. Bush supporters complained when Jesse Jackson and other black leaders joined local people for protests.

Meanwhile, in Seminole County, evidence emerged that voting officials had granted special opportunities for Republicans to correct data on absentee ballots, while flawed absentee ballots from regular citizens and Democrats were thrown away.

Republican Party workers were allowed to work out of Seminole County offices for as long as 10 days, without supervision in rooms housing the county's computer database of voters.

Sandra Goard, the county election supervisor, said she did not even know the identity of one of the two men given access to the absentee ballots and the computer rooms. Goard made her admissions in a sworn deposition, according to The New York Times. [Nov. 26, 2000]

In Seminole County, absentee ballots gave Bush about a 5,000-vote margin over Gore.

In the days after the Nov. 7 election, the Bush campaign insisted that the machine count should be respected as the most accurate.

But a statewide machine recount saw Bush's lead slip from 1,784 to 327, a margin that ironically included at least 418 hand-recounted votes for Bush from mostly Republican counties.

The machines also kicked out tens of thousands of ballots because the choice for president had not been completely punched through. Gore's campaign exercised a provision of Florida law similar to laws in other states, including Texas that permitted a hand recount.

The Bush forces immediately denounced a hand recount in three counties Dade, Palm Beach and Broward as unfair and unconstitutional. They also rejected Gore's offer for a statewide hand recount.

Republican court actions and administrative orders from the Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris caused delays in pressing ahead.

Building Support

Around the country, meanwhile, the conservative media apparatus, led by talk show host Rush Limbaugh and pro-Bush pundits, rallied the faithful with charges that a hand recount was fraudulent and amounted to "inventing" votes.

Given the large size of the three counties and the legal challenges, the hand recounts were barely started when Harris certified the machine recount as the official tally at a Nov. 14 deadline for the counties to submit Election Day results.

The Bush campaign insisted that Harris's certification was binding. Gore's appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, however, reversed that finding and allowed the hand recounts to proceed under another deadline of Nov. 26.

As the hand recounts resumed, Bush's official lead was 930 votes, after adding in overseas absentee ballots.

At this point, Republicans began busing in demonstrators to the sites of the recounts. The scenes grew more and more reminiscent of organized mobs in Haiti or some banana republic, rather than the United States.

But Bush did nothing to temper the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric of his supporters. Nor did he urge them to respect the legally sanctioned vote counting.

Instead, Bush's recount representative, James Baker, and Bush himself denounced the Florida Supreme Court. Bush accused the court of abusing its powers in a bid to "usurp" the authority of the legislature. Bush's comments suggested that he did not understand the role of the judiciary in the American system of governance.

Amid the escalating Republican rhetoric, a mob of about 150 pro-Bush demonstrators stormed the offices of the election canvassers in Dade County on Nov. 22. The election board was beginning its examination of 10,750 disputed ballots, which had not previously been counted.

With the mob pounding on the walls and roughing up Democrats in the vicinity, the canvassing board abruptly reversed its decision. The uncounted ballots were discarded, amid cheers from the Bush partisans.

The mob action in Dade County effectively assured Bush's election to the presidency, barring a court reversal. Despite the use of intimidation to influence a decision by election officials, Bush and his top aides remained publicly silent about these disruptive tactics.

The Washington Post reported today that "even as the Bush campaign and the Republicans portray themselves as above the fray," national Republicans actually had joined in and helped finance the raucous protests.

These GOP operatives spotted among the demonstrators included Tom Pyle, an aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Doug Heye, a spokesman for Rep. Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., the Post reported.

"Many of the out-of-state GOP demonstrators told local reporters that the Republican National Committee paid for their travel, room and board, putting a number of them up at a Sheraton in Fort Lauderdale," the article said.

The Wall Street Journal added more details, including the fact that Bush offered personal words of encouragement to the rioters in a conference call to a Bush campaign-sponsored celebration on the night of Thanksgiving Day, one day after the canvassing board assault.

"The night's highlight was a conference call from Mr. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney, which included joking reference by both running mates to the incident in Miami, two [Republican] staffers in attendance say," according to the Journal. [Nov. 27, 2000]

The Journal also reported that the assault on the canvassing board was led by national Republican operatives "on all expense-paid trips, courtesy of the Bush campaign." After their success in Dade, the rioters moved on to Broward, where the protests remained unruly but failed to stop that count.

The Journal noted that "behind the rowdy rallies in South Florida this past weekend was a well-organized effort by Republican operatives to entice supporters to South Florida," with DeLay's Capitol Hill office taking charge of the recruitment.

About 200 Republican congressional staffers signed on, the Journal reported. They were put up at hotels, given $30 a day for food and "an invitation to an exclusive Thanksgiving Day party in Fort Lauderdale," the article said.

The Journal said there was no evidence of a similar Democratic strategy to fly in national party operatives. "This has allowed the Republicans to quickly gain the upper hand, protest-wise," the Journal said.

The Bush campaign also worked to conceal its hand. "Staffers who joined the effort say there has been an air of mystery to the operation. 'To tell you the truth, nobody knows who is calling the shots,' says one aide. Many nights, often very late, a memo is slipped underneath the hotel-room doors outlining coming events," the Journal reported.

After their victory in shutting down the Dade County recount, the national GOP operatives from the Bush campaign and Capitol Hill celebrated at a party at the Hyatt on Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. The Journal reported that "entertainer Wayne Newton crooned the song 'Danke Schoen'," the German words for thank you very much. 

'President-Elect'

Still, by Sunday night, the Broward County vote had whittled down Bush's lead. Gore was gaining slowly in Palm Beach's recount, despite constant challenges from Republican observers.

To boost Bush's margin back up by 52 votes, Secretary of State Harris allowed Nassau County to throw out its recounted figures that had helped Gore. The county reverted back to the original Election Night count that had been more favorable to Bush.

As a 5 p.m. deadline approached, the Palm Beach canvassing board asked for a short extension to finish the contentious recount. Harris refused, rejecting even the partial recount figures that Palm Beach sent in the interim.

With Palm Beach excluded and Dade County shut down, Harris certified Bush the winner by 537 votes. The certification ceremony was conducted with all the fanfare of an official international treaty being signed.

Bush partisans cheered their victory and began demanding that Bush be called the president-elect. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential running mate, denounced the certification as  "an incomplete and inaccurate count" and vowed to challenge Harris's action in court.

Soon afterwards, Bush appeared on national television to announce himself the winner and to call on Gore to concede defeat.

"Now," Bush said, "we must live up to our principles. We must show our commitment to the common good, which is bigger than any person or any party

"The end of an election is the beginning of a new day. Together we can make this a positive day of hope and opportunity for all of us who are blessed to be Americans."

As extraordinary as the Bush power grab might be, Gore's chances of reversing the certification seem slim at best. Legal challenges especially under these circumstances will be difficult, if not impossible.

Even should Gore pull ahead with the inclusion of the Dade County and Palm Beach County votes, the Republicans have vowed to block Gore's election in the state legislature or, if necessary, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The voters' will on Election Day both nationally and in Florida may have been to elect Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. But Bush and the Republicans have demonstrated that their hardball political strategies and even their readiness to use mob tactics can trump a narrow Democratic victory among the voters.

Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of Republican rhetoric in the weeks since the election was the dropping of any pretense that Bush's election reflected the desires of the American voters.

Nationally, Republicans termed Gore's popular-vote victory irrelevant. In Florida, they called the confusion and irregularities simply the way the system works or tough luck.

Rather than respect a legal Democratic request for hand recounts that still could have given Bush the victory, the Republicans equated the court-ordered tally with voter fraud. Mobs were organized and sent to intimidate vote counters.

To the Bush camp, winning became everything, while Gore was excoriated as a "sore loser."

For all the world to see, "President-Elect" George W. Bush had demonstrated his triumph of the will.

[For more on the history of Republican strategies and bare-knuckle politics, see Who Should Concede?, an article from earlier this month, and Democrats' Dilemma from August 1999.]

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