Victory at Last

George W. Bush finally captures the U. S. presidency after a turbulent and divisive post-election battle that lasted 36 days

Andrew Phillips December 25 2000

Victory at Last

George W. Bush finally captures the U. S. presidency after a turbulent and divisive post-election battle that lasted 36 days

Andrew Phillips December 25 2000

Victory at Last


Andrew Phillips

Expect to hear a lot over the next few weeks about Bob Bullock, a legendary Texas Democrat who plays a key role in the George W. Bush Official Mythology. When Bush was first running to be governor in 1994, Bullock was the states powerful lieutenant-governor and the key power broker in its legislature. Bush knew he could get little done without Bullock’s co-operation, so three weeks before the election he went to the older man’s home and told him: “I’m here to tell you that I want to work with you.’’ After Bush won, the Republican governor and the Democratic lawmaker did forge a successful partnership—one that allowed Bush to take credit for a string of reforms that he used to demonstrate his readiness for the White House.

The story is dear to Bush supporters, who use it as proof that their man has what it takes to unite bitter rivals and heal old wounds. Bush himself invoked the name of Bullock (who died in 1999) last week as he stood in the chamber of the De-

mocratic-controlled Texas House of Representatives to address Americans for the first time as their president-elect. Exactly an hour earlier, Vice-President Al Gore had finally bowed to the inevitable and gracefully conceded defeat. Now, Bush implicitly promised, he would do for the United States what he did for Texas—reach out to his opponents. Five weeks of recounting and recrimination would give way to reconciliation and renewal. “I was not elected to serve one party,” he pledged, “but to serve one nation.”

Good luck. The Bullock story, like so many others in Bush’s improbable rise to power, conceals as much as it reveals. Gov. Bush had to deal with a state legislature that meets only every two years for a session limited to 140 days, and a Democratic party dominated by old-style conservatives (like Bullock) who would be well to the right of Republicans in many parts of the country. President Bush will take office at noon on Jan. 20 on the steps of a Congress divided and riven by round-

George W. Bush finally captures the U. S. presidency after a turbulent and divisive post-election battle that lasted 36 days

the-clock ideological warfare. The Democrats he will face are decidedly not the get-along, cut-a-deal types he so successfully charmed back home.

Just as bad, right-wingers in his own party may quickly become impatient if Bush does stick to the middle. The politics of personal persuasion, he may quickly find, don’t go all that far in a capital better known for tear-out-the-throat attack politics. “The Democrats are going to be like sharks,” warns Allan Lichtman, an expert on the presidency at American University in Washington. “They’re going to be swimming silently for a while, but as soon as there’s any blood from Bush in the water, there will be a feeding frenzy.”

Still, soothing words about unity and co-operation were clearly what Americans wanted to hear after a year-long elec-

tion campaign—plus the rancorous fight over ballots triggered by the photo finish in Florida. The back-to-back speeches by Gore and Bush capped an extraordinary six days that saw Gore’s hopes momentarily revived by one Supreme Court (the one in Florida), then finally dashed by another (the one in Washington). The man who had hoped to arrive in the White House as a healing “uniter, not a divider,” promising to “change the tone in Washington,” instead found himself winning only after a legal donnybrook far more divisive than the lacklustre campaign.

The omens are not good, although Gore did his part to repair the breach. After taking a night to digest the Supreme Court’s confusing but ultimately devastating ruling, he made his decision. The presidency, the job for which he had been groomed from childhood by his senator father, for which he

had worked all his adult life, would not be his. His campaign put out the word: the vice-president would speak that night. By awkward coincidence, a Christmas party for 300 supporters (Whoopi Goldberg among them) had been scheduled weeks earlier at his residence. It was too late to cancel, so the vice-president soldiered through it. Then he went out into the night to formally end his quest for the White House.

He did it in fine style. Gore managed to strike a tone that was both self-deprecating and dignified, a combination he never seemed to find during the campaign itself. He acknowledged Bush’s right to claim the White House and promised his support despite the bitterness of losing the presidency through a decision by a Supreme Court split cleanly along ideological lines. “While I strongly disagree with the

Supreme Court’s decision,” said Gore, “I accept it. I accept the finality of the outcome. What remains of partisan rancour must now be put aside.”

But nothing could hide the fact that Bush will always be “President Asterisk”—the man who won the office on a technicality, whose victory hangs on the slenderest of threads. The validity of his court-mandated victory in Florida will be questioned for years to come; he won the electoral college by a single vote more than the bare majority needed; and he lost the nationwide popular vote by 337,576 votes. Only three other men won the presidency while losing the overall vote— and historians have been quick to recall that all three served a single, troubled term in office. The first of them, John Quincy Adams in 1824, was also the only other son of a president to win the office himself.

Bush, clearly, must beat the odds— a tall order for a man who turned seri-

ously to politics only six years ago and who must battle the perception that he is an empty suit, propped up by Republican heavyweights and his father’s old lieutenants. The road to his eventual victory only made a tough job more difficult. The campaign itself, though inevitably partisan, was not particularly divisive. The candidates were uninspiring; few but the most partisan voters found much to fight about. Instead, it was the unprecedented 35-day recount circus in Florida that inflamed passions. And the final scene of the play, with the U.S. Supreme Court first intervening in dramatic style to stop another effort to count disputed ballots, and then finally crushing Gore’s remaining chance at victory, left a bitter taste.

There were few hopes that the high court would allow a recount when it met on Dec. 11 to hear 90 minutes of oral arguments in Bush v. Gore, Case No. 00-949. Two days earlier,

Bush must now deal with a Congress riven by round-theclock partisan warfare

the court had split 5 to 4, between its conservative majority and its moderate-to-liberal minority, and ordered an immediate halt to a recount authorized by the more liberal Florida Supreme Court. The complex arguments came down to an essential choice: would the federal court decide that manual recounts amounted to an illegal change in the rules of the election after the votes were cast (as the Bush team argued), or would it rule that a recount could be done to make sure that all votes were tallied (as Gores lawyers contended)? In the end, the court split again along its ideological fault

line. Anyone who had hoped that the Supreme Court might be able to resolve an issue that had already ensnarled state courts and the Florida legislature and threatened to spill over into Congress was sure to be disappointed. The five most conservative judges—Chief Justice William Rehnquist, along with justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas—ruled on Dec. 12 against any further recounting of the contested Florida ballots.

It came down, they said, to the fact that there was no clear standard for deciding when a voter had marked a punch card for Gore or for Bush— and that would violate the clause in the constitution guaranteeing “equal protection” to all citizens.

Further, they ruled, prolonging the count beyond Dec. 12 would throw doubt on the validity of the presidential electors selected by

Florida because of a federal law protecting electors from challenge if they are chosen by that day. As a result, the five judges wrote, “it is obvious that the count cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirement of equal protection and due process.” The bottom line: no more recounts. Bush would be the victor in Florida by a margin of just 537 votes out of six million statewide.

Gore supporters were outraged—and they needed to look no further for ammunition than the series of blistering dissenting opinions issued by the four judges who found themselves in the minority. Ironically, it was the liberal minority that ended up lecturing the conservative majority for failing to respect the authority of a state court—a traditional con-

servative position. Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, accused the five-member majority of effectively disenfranchising voters whose choices were not registered during machine counts of the ballots. And, he wrote, the court showed no confidence in the state judges who would be called on to oversee any new recount: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Justice David Souter, another liberal, appointed in 1990 by the new president-elect’s father, underlined the paradox involved in the court’s first halting the recount—and then ruling that it could not continue because time had run out: “If this court had allowed the state to follow the course indicated by the opinions of its own Supreme Court, it is entirely possible that there would ultimately have been no issue requir-

ing our review, and political tension could have worked itself out in Congress.”

The ruling may have shattered any illusion that the top court is above the partisan fray. Critics of the conservative majority found even more to fuel their concerns in reports that one of Scalia’s sons works for the Washington law firm that argued Bush’s case before the Supreme Court, while Thomas’s wife is at a right-wing think-tank in the capital, helping to recruit prospective members of a new Bush administration. It all looked too convenient, though Thomas told high-school students the morning after the momentous ruling that he has never heard his fellow judges discuss partisan politics. “Don’t try to apply the rules of the political world to this institution,” he said. “They do not apply.”

Whatever the doubts surrounding his election, the newly anointed president-elect had to turn immediately to two priorities: people and policy. A new administration must fill some 6,000 jobs, including several hundred senior positions

that must be confirmed by the Senate. Doubts over the outcome in Florida made it awkward for Bush to publicly announce top appointments—and impossible to begin the lengthy background and security checks needed to get a new administration in place by Jan. 20. But that changed quickly with the naming of retired general Colin Powell

as secretary of state, four days after the Supreme Court decision. Condoleezza Rice, a foreign policy veteran of the previous Bush administration, is soon expected to be named national security adviser. They would be the most senior African-Americans appointed to any U.S. cabinet—a move that might help Bush among black voters, who opposed him on election day by a whopping nine to one.

When he does take office, Bush will have to decide how to best use his small stock of political capital. Right-wingers in his own party are champing at the

bit. Tom DeLay, the ultraconservative Republican whip in the House of Representatives, said recendy that he had been waiting his whole life to have his party control the White House as well as both houses of Congress (Republicans have a very slight edge in the House, and the tie in the Senate can be broken by

The president will take office with a very small pool of political capital

the vice-president). “The things we have been dreaming about we can now do unfettered,” he said.

But Bushs advisers have made clear that they know they will be anything but unfettered. Instead, Bush said last week he will start off by proposing action on education reform and lowering prescription drug prices for seniors—areas where he

may be able to find allies among Democrats. And rather than push ahead with a massive tax cut, as he proposed during the campaign, he is more likely to start with something more modest, such as doing away with the federal inheritance tax.

Expectations could hardly be lower—questionable legitimacy, a divided Congress, even a slowing economy. Of

course, low expectations may be the best thing Bush has going for him. He likes to remind people that he has always been underestimated, even by his parents, who earlier put their White House

hopes on his smarter, more telegenic brother, Jeb, now governor of Florida. In the best of circumstances, George W. Bush was unlikely to be a great president. Now, with so many obvious handicaps, even modest achievements may be greeted as major triumphs. Eli