Monday, September 17, 2001

Newsweek: Past as Prelude

The economy's in trouble, Gore is stirring and in Florida the ghosts of 2000 are returning to battle anew.

In Newsweek, Howard Fineman writes:

Cathy Dubin was in her Lexus, visiting polling places in Palm Beach County last Nov. 7, when her mobile phone rang. As director of the county Democratic Party, she was on the lookout for Election Day crises, and now her husband was calling--minutes after the polls opened--to report from their own precinct. "You've got a major problem here," he told her. "People can't figure out the ballot." The world soon came to know what he was talking about: the inscrutable "butterfly ballot," which helped make George Walker Bush president.

These days Dubin is on a new mission: to stage a giant rally in West Palm on the first anniversary of Election Day. In a venue usually played by the likes of Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and Sting, she hopes to draw 6,000 Democrats eager to take vengeance on one of the men they blame for Bush's victory, his younger brother Gov. John Ellis (Jeb) Bush. Sen. Joe Lieberman will headline the event. ("He's a rock star down here," says Dubin.) The local draw is Janet Reno, the Democrat most likely to win the right to challenge Jeb in what is sure to be a nasty prelude to the 2004 presidential race. "We're angry, but we are also excited," says Dubin, "because we are going to channel our anger into beating Bushes."

A new political season has begun, and it's shaping up as a War of Settling Scores, with all the old familiar places, faces and themes. Democrats and the press are revisiting the Florida count, recount and Supreme Court decision sealing Bush's victory. Al Gore has grown a beard, and is heading to Iowa to say "I told you so" as the economy sinks. Bush, his standing still enfeebled by the manner in which he was elected, again has to demonstrate that he is Up to It, this time by leading the country out of an increasingly gloomy economy and helping his "little brother" win re-election. Even Bill Clinton is back. Reno's inner circle has discussed inviting him to campaign for her if she can win the gubernatorial nomination. And, as improbable as it seems (there is no love lost between them), Clinton is eager to do so.

The anniversary of the Florida fiasco will find the survivor--Bush--in the swamp of a weak economy. Even before he was elected, his aides foresaw the end of the Long Boom, and tried to warn the public so Bush would not be blamed. But while voters may thank him for their $600 tax rebates, they also may blame him--fairly or unfairly--for the collapse of the stock market, the shrinkage of their 401(k)s or, worse, the loss of their jobs. White House aides rightly note that the so-called misery index--the combined inflation and unemployment rate--is far lower than in past recessions. But doubts about Bush's legitimacy will resurface, Democrats contend, if he can't handle this crisis now. "Because of how Bush got there, the risks of failure are always going to be greater," says Democratic consultant Bob Shrum.

In this new-yet-old cold war, Florida is the DMZ, a rubble-strewn free-fire zone neither party can afford to lose. This week President Bush choppers in for two days with Jeb (his fifth trip there since March 12). The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, will meet in Miami, its first-ever fall conclave outside Washington. Cities such as Tampa, polltakers say, are teeming with "persuadables," the fickle voters of the future. "Florida was a big Republican state," says White House strategist Matthew Dowd. "Now it's the biggest swing state of all."

And Bush's victory there was dicier than we knew, but not for the reasons assumed. Various news outlets have combed through the state's ballot wreckage (another such effort is due next week) and found no conclusive evidence that the count was wrong. But the real story of Florida was in Washington, according to a new book out this week by NEWSWEEK's David A. Kaplan.

In "The Accidental President," he unearths new details about backroom maneuvering and bitterness within the U.S. Supreme Court, which last Dec. 12 ruled that the Florida recount was unconstitutional, effectively declaring Bush the winner. Kaplan reports that Justice David Souter thought he had nearly persuaded Justice Anthony Kennedy to join the "moderate" bloc, which would have reversed the court's ruling and perhaps thrown the election into Congress. "One more day," Souter lamented afterward. And, in an unusual display, Justice Stephen Breyer (in front of a delegation of Russian judges) castigated the conservatives' ruling as an "indefensible" trampling of the people's will.

Most voters have put Florida 2000 out of their minds, but not hard-core Democrats, who blame the high court and the Bush family for Gore's loss. "People say I should stop talking about it," says DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "But I'll tell you what: our people are still mad." The Florida fiasco shows the need for uniform national election rules, he says. Until Bush agrees, McAuliffe says, he'll mouth off. But other Democrats worry that the jihad-like language will distract the party from the task of assembling a new governing agenda. "Payback is not a platform," says one of the party's top strategists.

But it can be rocket fuel in a campaign, and may be the juice that relaunches Gore. Party insiders were dubious about him in 2000, but went along because he was veep. Now most of them--from the trial lawyers to the contribution bundlers, from Big Labor bosses to table hosts at Jefferson-Jackson dinners--think he should step aside.

That's not what most rank-and-file Democrats seem to think. They believe he was screwed--an experience with which they can identify. To them he is a celebrity victim. And after months in self-imposed exile, Gore is ready to return as the sadder but wiser man who still thinks he knows the Way--and who can finally do what most strategists think he didn't do enough of last year: brag about the Clinton-Gore economy.

For now, he's steering clear of Florida and trying to fly below radar. That is no longer possible. Gore's coming-out party is Sept. 28 at a "Jeff-Jack" dinner in Iowa, an event he couldn't avoid because he owed state leaders for sticking with him against Bill Bradley in the 2000 caucuses. Gore had penciled in other dates, including a dinner in New Hampshire and the West Palm rally, but news of the Iowa event created such a frenzy that his handlers advised him to back off. Still, McAuliffe persuaded Gore to do three DNC fund-raisers, and sources say the former veep is likely to do a fourth--in Florida.

The Florida circle can't be unbroken until Clinton comes back. He'd love to show Democrats--and Gore--how to win there. In 1992 he insisted the ticket could win the state, and was convinced it lost only because handlers directed last-minute time and money elsewhere. Clinton-Gore won it in 1996. In 2000 the president was apoplectic at Gore's failure to lock it up early. On election night Clinton homed in on Florida, according to Kaplan's account. "Why is it so f---ing close?" he asked. It was a good question then, and it has been haunting politics, in Florida and Washington, ever since.