Risking a Repeat of Election 2000

Exclusive: President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are locked in a tight race with Tuesday’s election likely to be decided in a few hard-fought battleground states, much like 2000. And, Robert Parry sees other troubling parallels to that disastrous election.

By Robert Parry

When I look at Election 2012, I am reminded of eerie parallels to Election 2000. In both cases, imperfect Democratic presidents had made progress righting the American ship of state, improving the economy, reducing levels of violence abroad and demonstrating that government could be a force for good at home.

So, the choice was whether to continue those policies under the Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2012 or to heed Republican promises about how much better everything would be if the federal government were pushed out of the way and the “free market” were allowed to operate with fewer regulations and lower taxes.

There was also discontent on the Left where the actions of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were deemed insufficiently progressive, both in domestic and foreign policy. There was much talk about how the Democratic and Republican parties were essentially the same and that who won didn’t matter.

The U.S. news media also behaved irresponsibly during Campaign 2000, treating it as a time to haze Al Gore by running him through an impossible obstacle course and penalizing him for stumbles, while applying far gentler standards for his rival, George W. Bush. Gore was the obnoxious know-it-all; Bush the charming “regular guy.”

So, a combination of a demoralized Left, an energized Right and a goofy news media created the conditions for a near dead-heat election in 2000, a nightmarish déjà vu to the situation that exists in the United States on the eve of this Election Day. [For details on Election 2000, see our book, Neck Deep.]

I also am hearing similar arguments today from folks on the Left that there’s no real difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, just as I was told by friends in Ralph Nader’s campaign that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush a dozen years ago.

In 2000, when I expressed my concerns about the neoconservatives who surrounded Bush, I was told that I was being paranoid, that Bush would push aside the neocons if he got elected and would listen instead to the “realists” who had dominated George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.

It turned out that these friends were wrong on both counts. Few people today would still argue that Al Gore would have been as disastrous a president as George W. Bush was, nor would they say that the neocons didn’t have Bush’s ear at crucial moments, especially after the 9/11 attacks.

The results of Bush’s eight years in office were catastrophic to the nation and the world. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers were killed in a war launched under false pretenses. Trillions of dollars were wasted on war and other military spending. Bush’s tax-cut and deregulatory fervor contributed to massive federal deficits and a bubble-and-bust economy that exploded into a near depression in 2008.

Bush’s contempt for the science of global warming also meant that the United States did next to nothing to address that emerging existential threat to human civilization. And his right-wing appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court wiped out decades of painstaking reforms aimed at limiting the power of special-interest money in U.S. politics.

A Gore Presidency

By contrast, a President Gore might well have taken actions to avert the 9/11 attacks. He understood the threat from al-Qaeda and would surely not have blown off the CIA warnings in summer 2001 as Bush did. Even if 9/11 had occurred, Gore would not have used the crisis to wage an unprovoked war against Iraq.

Gore also would not have enacted massive tax cuts benefiting millionaires; he would have been a more careful steward of the economy; he would have appointed more reasonable justices to the Supreme Court; and he would have taken action on one of his personal priorities, global warming.

It is painful to think how different the world might be today if the U.S. media/political system had behaved more responsibly in 2000. But what is perhaps even more painful is how few lessons have been learned. According to some polls, a plurality of the American electorate is prepared to vote for another “anti-government” Republican in 2012.

After a brief four-year respite from Republican rule, the nation and the world are finally digging out of the wreckage left behind by Bush. The war in Iraq has ended; the Afghan War is winding down; the financial system is stabilizing; the employment situation is gradually improving.

While President Obama certainly deserves some criticism, especially for his failure to break more fully with Bush’s national security policies, Obama actually has turned out to be a better executive than I had expected in 2008 when I viewed him as lacking in administrative experience.

Yet, over the past four years, Obama has applied an analytical approach to decision-making which could be a model for future presidents. He “works” the available data and then reaches clear conclusions. His decision to authorize the special-operations raid against Osama bin Laden may be the best known example of this approach, but he has applied it to a variety of hard choices, both foreign and domestic.

It is this quality of judgment that former President Clinton is referring to when he says he is “more enthusiastic” about Obama in 2012 than he was in 2008. Obama also has genuine accomplishments on his résumé. Though many on the Left have focused on his failure to achieve some of their priorities, he has made progress in the face of unyielding and unrelenting Republican obstruction.

Yes, the $787 billion stimulus bill would have helped the economy more if it were larger; a Medicare-for-all approach to health-care reform would have saved more money; a greater emphasis could have been placed on global warming; ideally, Wall Street reform could have been tougher; and prosecutions for financial and national security crimes would have upheld the principle of equal protection under the law.

But Obama did avert what could have been a worldwide financial collapse, a danger that clearly influenced how aggressively he felt he could deal with Wall Street abuses and Bush’s national security crimes. The potential chaos of a global depression had to be kept in mind when he was making his early decisions.

Concentrating on the present and the future, rather than accountability for the past, Obama managed to save the U.S. auto industry while requiring improved fuel efficiency standards; he expanded funding for alternative energy making that a priority not seen since Jimmy Carter’s presidency; he legislated new regulations on the health-insurance and financial industries, albeit not as sweeping as some would have liked.

Obama also oversaw progress toward equal rights for women, gays and Lesbians. And he appears poised to implement several major foreign policy initiatives if he wins reelection, including an expected settlement of the Iranian nuclear dispute and a new push for peace in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

I was told by one source knowledgeable about the Iranian situation that major progress could occur within days of the U.S. election, if Obama wins, but that the neocons around Romney would likely reject good-faith negotiations and instead pursue Iraq-style “regime change” in Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iran War on the Ballot.”]

Neocon Resurgence

In another flashback to Election 2000, my warnings about a neocon resurgence under President Romney have drawn similar skepticism from some folks on the Left who consider my concerns “alarmist” or “apocalyptic.” It is again the view of some that there is no real difference between a President Obama and a President Romney.

The Romney campaign is also playing to that sentiment during the final days before the election. Jettisoning his earlier self-presentation as a “severely conservative” leader, Romney has shape-shifted into someone who wants to compromise with Democrats and who won’t act on controversial social issues.

This last-minute switch is reminiscent of the Republican strategy before Election 2010 to play up a commitment to “jobs, jobs, jobs.” However, after winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives and various governorships, the GOP pushed laws restricting abortion (including a plan for “trans-vaginal ultra-sounds”), punishing undocumented immigrants, breaking labor unions, blocking gay marriage and restricting voting rights.

In Campaign 2012, the U.S. news media also has repeated its tendency to bend in the face of well-organized pressure from the Right, a tendency that I witnessed during my days at the Associated Press, Newsweek and PBS in the 1980s and 1990s as well as in Campaign 2000 and during much of Bush’s presidency.

Since 2009, the national press corps has framed almost everything in terms of Obama’s “failures,” rather than explaining the fuller context. For instance, continued partisan infighting has been described primarily as Obama’s “failure” to change the political climate of Washington rather than as a ruthless Republican strategy to sabotage the President’s economic policies and profit off the discontent of the American people.

It’s also conventional wisdom that Obama should suffer at the polls for the stubbornly high unemployment rate, even though journalists know that when they repeat that meme they are validating the GOP strategy of making the U.S. economy “scream” and making Obama pay.

So on the eve of Election 2012, many of the same elements are there that were present in Election 2000. A significant portion of the electorate is confused and misinformed; the press corps tilts rightward not to offend the Right; elements of the Left still won’t distinguish between shades of gray; and the Republican Party is prepared to do almost anything to regain the White House.

It is a recipe for a potential repeat of a national and global tragedy. As Al Gore might say, the earth is in the balance.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

Democracy on the Ballot

What’s left of American democracy is on the Nov. 6 ballot, with the Republicans hoping that a combination of voter suppression and attack ads bought by billionaires will secure the White House and Congress. Investigative reporter Greg Palast describes the strategy in a new book reviewed by Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

With opinion polls heading into Tuesday’s election a dead heat, the decision could come down to a controversial counting of ballots in a replay of Florida 2000. That would put the focus on how Americans vote, a story that has so far been a subtext to this presidential race.

The news media tend to concentrate on the horserace rather than the complicated issues surrounding how the winner will be determined. But the public is evidently interested. It has catapulted to bestseller status a humorous new book that probes the questionable techniques developed over the past 20 years to influence the outcome of national elections.

The humor to be sure is black. Having taught statistics at Indiana University, author Greg Palast is well aware that a dry political science study of the subject would not have sold nearly 20,000 copies in its first four weeks. Illustrated with a 48-page centerfold of Ted Rall comics, and with an Introduction and a chapter by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Seven Stories Press, 284 pps.) reached the top 10 on the New York Times list. Clearly outraged, Palast’s flippancy, however, risks taking the edge off the issue’s deadly seriousness.

His investigation reveals a systematic effort, bankrolled by some of the nation’s richest people, to deny votes to some of the country’s poorest. Palast’s central claim is that it’s a campaign to revive the voting restrictions of the pre-civil rights era.

“Forget all the baloney about democracy you heard in the sixth grade from Mrs. Gordon about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act,” he writes. “Ballot-box apartheid remains as American as apple pie.”

Palast is a hybrid private investigator, reporter and social satirist. A University of Chicago graduate in economics, Palast was an investigator for the federal government and labor unions, leading the government’s largest ever racketeering case against the Long Island Power Co. that won $4.8 billion from a jury. Noting the sorry state of investigative journalism, he turned his skills to reporting in the late Nineties for the BBC and the Observer newspaper in Britain.

Palast first waded into the electoral morass in Florida 2000, the most controversial American election since Tilden-Hayes in 1876. That was decided in a backroom, exchanging withdrawal of Federal occupation troops from the South for Hayes’ victory.

Palast has a knack for prying into backrooms. And he’s been thrown out of a few too. He wormed into the offices of Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to find evidence that Florida swept enough questionable felons from the rolls to influence an election decided by 537 votes.

Palast, for instance, obtained a computer disk from Harris’ office listing 91,000 purged felons. He says he and his team checked each one and none had been convicted of a crime. He also got hold of a confidential letter from Gov. Bush’s office ordering election officials to knowingly break state law by purging from the rolls felons who had been convicted in other states, not in Florida, before moving there.

Palast makes a persuasive case that so-called anti-voter fraud measures are themselves a fraud because voting fraudulently, a felony, practically doesn’t exist. He’s says on average only six people a year are convicted of it. “A half-dozen jerks convicted of voting illegally. In the whole country but in the Voter-Fraud Hysteria Factory these six become so threatening and dangerous that they will be used to take away the vote from six million.”

That’s the number, 5,901,814 to be exact, of voters that his study of U.S. Election Assistance Commission records show were illegally denied their ballot in the 2008 election.

Despite this, Palast says Republican governments in swing states like Florida, Arizona and Ohio keep tying to keep “fraudulent voters” from voting, for the other party. “To win an election, you need votes,” he writes. “Or just as good, you need to take away the votes of your opponent.”

In the book’s Introduction, Kennedy quotes Karl Rove writing in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “if you can get rid of one-quarter of one percent of black voters in this country you can turn the election.”

So Palast argues in Billionaires and Ballot Bandits that state Republican parties have indeed set out to reduce the Democratic vote in nine ways: by purging, caging, spoiling, prestidigitizing, tossing, rejecting, blocking and ejecting blacks, Hispanics, Jews and students who mostly vote Democratic from the voting rolls.

Purging is removing voters from the rolls by demanding IDs (which poor Democratic voters are less likely to have) or declaring them dead, doubly registered, legally insane or felons in states where they aren’t allowed to vote.

The ID issue has gotten the most attention. Palast quotes the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University as saying that five million seniors, blacks, Hispanics and youth will be denied their vote because they lack proper government ID. But what is proper government ID? Student ID cards from the state university have been rejected in Wisconsin and last week the Tennessee Supreme Court had to rule that photo library cards were acceptable.

Caging is sending mass mailings labeled Do Not Forward. Returned letters are used to strike names from the rolls even if it’s a student or soldier temporarily living away from home or if the address has a typo. Caging is illegal under federal law. but Palast shows it still happens. “Go to Iraq, lose your vote,” he writes. “Mission accomplished, Mr. Bush.”

Spoiling involves rejecting ballots that aren’t “correctly” filled out, for example, if the black dot goes slightly beyond the circle or if a chad isn’t completely punched out, even though courts have ruled it’s the voters’ intention that counts.

Prestidigitizing is when votes are dropped from unreliable voting machines put in the poorest and likely Democratic precincts. Tossing involves throwing out provisional ballots even for bogus reasons.

The evidence Palast presents for each of these dirty tricks is credible: leaked documents, government statistics, academic studies, and interviews with election officials, experts and disenfranchised voters. While some Democratic officials are guilty of these maneuvers Palast argues the vast majority are done by Republicans.

And he doesn’t stop there. He delves into the big money interests that he says are behind them. Top of his list are oil magnates Charles and David Koch, and Paul Singer, the vulture fund financier about whom Palast devoted his previous book, Vulture’s Picnic.

Acting after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed corporations to secretly give unlimited funds to political SuperPacs, these billionaires, according to Palast, have spent untold millions to influence elections. “What do these billionaires want? What do men who have everything want?” he asks. “Well, Congress, gift-wrapped, would be nice. The White House would be nicer.”

They’ve funded the principal Republican SuperPacs, Restore Our Future and America, Committee for Our Children’s Future, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. The book builds the case that together these SuperPacs have funded the effort to suppress the Democratic vote on Tuesday. Their aim is get politicians elected who will change laws, regulations and policies benefitting their businesses, he says.

All this should be front page news, according to Palast, who lambasts American journalism for lacking the resources and the guts to take on the issue.

Though the book is well-documented it can’t be the last or authoritative word. Only a major, nationwide congressional investigation into such allegations can get to the bottom of it and remove suspicions about American elections. It’s a tall order given state-control of federal elections, the politics involved and the role Supreme Court-sanctioned SuperPacs are playing.

Kennedy calls these Pacs “treasonous.” He says they’re designed to “subvert American democracy and turn our country over to the moneyed aristocracy.” And he warns, “We are now in a free fall toward old-fashioned oligarchy, that noxious thieving, tyrannical, oppressive species of government that America’s original settlers fled Europe to escape.”

If a very tight race on Tuesday indeed becomes Florida 2000 redux, the issues explored in this book could well become what everyone is at last talking about.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com .