We’ve finally reached the Twenty-First Century! In the previous hundred years, America solidified its standing as a world leader. It entered the new millennium with a federal surplus and no major foreign conflicts. Who would voters pick to maintain this prosperity?
The Last Four Years
America’s economy continued to improve throughout Bill Clinton’s second term. On policy, he stayed the course as a moderate Democrat. This time, however, the scandals that had always been in the background of his political career were on full display. In 1994, former Solicitor General Ken Starr was appointed to lead the Whitewater Investigation of a suspicious land deal made by the Clintons in Arkansas. Soon, the scope of the investigation would encompass the entirety of the Clintons’ personal lives. Through Starr, Republicans hoped to expose any and all misdeeds by the country’s most powerful couple. In turn, the White House was forced to expend resources defending the President. A crucial turning point came in 1997 when the Supreme Court ruled that the sexual harassment case of Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, against Clinton could move forward before the conclusion of his presidency.
In January, 1998, news broke of another sex scandal involving the President. First reported by the conservative website the Drudge Report, Clinton was accused of having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Their relationship began during the 1995/1996 government shutdown, when unpaid interns were needed to fill the roles of staff members. In a deposition for the Paula Jones case, Clinton denied having any affairs with White House employees, including Lewinsky. The Starr Investigation was informed of the inappropriate relationship by Linda Tripp, a Pentagon staffer who had become Lewinsky’s friend and confidant. Tripp secretly recorded Lewinsky discussing the affair and provided those tapes to the investigation. Clinton initially denied the allegations. Throughout the following months, more details about the affair were released to the public, including the existence of Lewinsky’s stained dress containing the President’s DNA. In August, Clinton finally acknowledged that there had been inappropriate conduct between him and Lewinsky, but still denied lying or orchestrating a cover-up. His defense included claims that he only meant that they were not having an affair in the present-tense (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”) and that he did not engage in sexual misconduct because the acts were committed on him, not by him. In his final report submitted to the House of Representatives, Starr recommend impeachment on the grounds that Clinton had lied under oath during the Jones deposition. The House followed his lead and Clinton became the second president in history to be impeached (the first was Andrew Johnson in 1868). The subsequent Senate trial began in January, 1999. Clinton’s supporters generally agreed that, while the President had certainly done something wrong, those actions did not constitute the “high crimes and misdemeanors” required for removal from office. On February 12, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate. 45 Republicans voted to convict. 45 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted in his favor.
It was soon evident that Republicans had overplayed their hand. During the House deliberations on impeachment, Republicans suffered poor results in the 1998 midterm elections (typically, the opposition party is at an advantage in the second midterms of a two-term president). The President’s popularity was at an all-time high, reaching almost 70%. Though public opinion polls rated him low on honesty, he was bolstered by high marks on job performance. Clinton’s final scandal as president came just before the end of his term. In his final days in office, he granted 140 presidential pardons. The most controversial pardon went to businessman Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a prominent Democratic fundraiser.
Given a booming economy, Americans were willing to forgive a lot! The most noteworthy policy issue for the 2000 campaign was deciding what to do with the new federal surplus. Republicans, however, were determined to make morality a central topic.
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination was Vice President (and former Tennessee Senator) Al Gore. Supporters believed Gore would continue Clinton’s moderate policies. He was known for his expertise on international, environmental, and technological issues (he was known as an “Atari Democrat” as a young congressman). Gore’s only noteworthy opponent was former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Bradley ran to Gore’s left, specifically on universal health care and gun control. He received a few big-name endorsements, including basketball star Michael Jordan. In the end, though, Gore had no trouble winning the primaries. Bradley withdrew from the contest in March. Gore chose Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman was the first Jewish person on a major party ticket. This selection helped distance Gore from Clinton’s scandals, as Lieberman had been the first prominent Democrat to publicly condemn the President’s misconduct (though he ultimately voted not to remove him from office).
The Republican party was still recovering from two tough presidential losses. They were desperate to recreate the victorious 1980s. The frontrunner for the nomination was Texas Governor George W. Bush, son of the 41st president. Unlike his father, who was raised in the Northeast, W. Bush was a legitimate Texan. He followed in his father’s footsteps as an owner of an oil company. He was also a part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Thanks to his family name, and resulting fundraising ability, Bush had the advantage in the primaries. He faced several challengers, including businessman Steve Forbes (back after a moderately successful attempt in 1996), Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, former Secretary of Labor (and wife of the party’s last nominee) Elizabeth Dole, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes. His main opponent, however, was Arizona Senator (and Vietnam War hero) John McCain. Due to his reputation as a political “maverick,” McCain was most popular with with moderates and independents. Bush, on the other hand, attracted many religious conservatives. Before the Iowa Caucus, when asked which political philosopher he most identified with, Bush answered, “Christ.” Although he was an easy target for jokes by the media, Bush won the Hawkeye state. McCain responded with a win in the moderate-leaning New Hampshire by labeling Bush as part of the establishment. In South Carolina, Bush used his bipartisan record as governor to instead claim the label of a “reformer with results.” Bush won South Carolina and carried the momentum through Super Tuesday, prompting McCain to drop out. Bush offered the position of running mate to his father’s Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, hoping his expertise in Washington would balance the ticket. Cheney initially turned down the offer and instead helped search for a suitable replacement… only to accept the offer himself anyways. In his acceptance speech, Bush focused his attacks on Clinton, arguing, “Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill… Instead of seizing this moment, the Clinton-Gore administration has squandered it… And now they come asking for another chance.”
The two most notable third parties were the Reform Party and the Green Party. Pat Buchanan, formerly a religious Republican, dropped from his party’s race to join the Reformers. Since Ross Perot founded the party between his 1992 and 1996 campaigns, it had been torn between social conservatives and celebrity populists. Its most successful politician was former wrestler Jesse Ventura, now governor of Minnesota. For the 2000 nomination, Buchanan defeated candidates such as Donald Trump and former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke. The environmentally-focused Green Party nominated long-time activist and lawyer Ralph Nader.
George W. Bush centered his campaign on the concept of “compassionate conservatism.” He was soft on popular liberal issues like social security, Medicare, and environmental protections. Instead, his main pitch was to bring honor and dignity back to the White House. He emphasized his experience working with Democrats in Texas, referring to himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” His campaign tested out a slew of uninspiring slogans such as, “Prosperity with Purpose,” “Reasonable Change,” and “Renewing America’s Purpose Together.” As a true conservative, Bush promised Reagan-style tax cuts to his base.
Al Gore similarly ran on his honor and political record. He argued that Bush lacked real experience. He went out of his way to distance himself from President Clinton, even refusing his boss’ offer to campaign with him. While this strategy may have helped mitigate associations between Gore and Clinton’s scandals, it hurt his ability to grab media attention and fundraise. After all, the President was still really popular! Gore caught a lucky break when Bush accidentally admitted that he believed his opponent was a more honorable man than Clinton. When asked if Gore could restore honor to the WH, Bush responded, “I think he can. I don’t think Clinton is an issue as we go forward.” Many were stunned that he would voluntarily revoke one of his campaign’s main talking points.
Without any major crises to debate, personality played a big role in the campaign. Bush, like his father, was known for embarrassing verbal gaffes. This, of course, prompted endless ridicule from the media, but Bush remained light-hearted and often made fun of himself. To many voters, this actually made him seem more down-to-Earth. He was just a regular guy — a guy you’d want to have a beer with. Bush was also known for being informal with reporters by giving them nicknames, slapping them on the back, and exchanging playful insults. It was easy for voters to forget that his policies aligned with the far-right. Gore, on the other hand, came across as stiff and cold. He once admitted to a reporter, “I don’t consider myself a natural politician. The back-slapping political style is not my natural forte.” Although it was clear that he was more knowledgable on policy, many voters considered him too intellectual. In the first debate, Gore repeatedly sighed during his opponent’s responses and frequently interrupted him. Gore seemed presumptuous and rude, while Bush’s laid-back style felt natural and honest.
Bush led in the polls for most of the campaign, but the race narrowed as Election Day neared. Some conservatives feared that a recently exposed DUI from Bush’s past would depress religious turnout. As voting began, the race was too close to call.
You might be surprised to learn that the 2000 election was the origin of the Republicans-Red / Democrats-Blue distinction! Previously, the color assignments for the parties were inconsistent across media outlets. In fact, the first election map by NBC in 1976 followed UK Parliament colors — blue for Conservatives, red for Labour.
Gore’s results mirrored Clinton’s in many regions. He did best on the coasts and picked up a few Midwest states, too. The real difference was in the South, where Bush dominated. Gore even lost his home state of Tennessee. Overall, this election saw low voter turnout.
At the end of the Election Night, the winner was still unclear. No candidate had enough electoral votes to win, and the returns from Florida were still fluctuating. Television networks initially declared Gore the victor, but later flipped to Bush. Gore subsequently conceded the election via phone call to his rival, only to rescind the offer when networks switched once more to “undecided.” While millions of votes were cast across the country, the election would be decided by a few hundred ballots in Florida. Luckily for Bush, the state was controlled by Republicans, led by his brother, Governor Jeb! Bush.
The results in Florida were so close, they triggered an automatic recount of the entire state over two days. The result was a Bush victory by less than 300 votes. Finding considerable evidence of ballot errors, the Gore campaign demanded a hand recount in four critical counties. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (who also worked on the Bush campaign and failed to recuse herself) denied the request. The campaign appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which unanimously authorized the recounts and necessary deadline extension.
There were several issues under review during the recount. “Undervotes” were ballots not counted by machines due to partially attached “chads,” the little pieces of paper from the punch-hole. “Hanging chads” were still attached at one corner, “swinging-door chads” at two, “tri-chads” at three, and “pregnant chads” were attached in all for corners, but had a clear indentation in the middle. “Overvotes,” on the other hand, were ballots on which voters both punched the corresponding hole of their preferred candidate and wrote in that person’s name. Gore’s team was also concerned about the “butterfly” design of the ballots in Palm Beach County. They expected significant support from the county’s large elderly, Jewish population. Instead, there was an unexpectedly high number of votes for outspoken Christian candidate Pat Buchanan, whose name was confusingly opposite Gore’s on the ballots. In several counties, absentee ballots coming from soldiers overseas had been disqualified due to lack of postmarking or signatures. Republican workers intentionally filled-in the missing information in order to count these votes for Bush. In the end, Democrats refrained from objecting to the special treatment so as to not seem unpatriotic towards service members. Miami-Dade County did not complete their recount, due to pressure from conservative demonstrators.
When the new deadline passed, Katherine Harris declared Bush the winner by a little more than 500 votes. Democrats returned to the Florida Supreme Court to ask to reopen the Miami-Dade County recount and persuaded the court to order a recount of all previously uncounted ballots state-wide. Republicans appealed this decision to the US Supreme Court. Conservatives controlled the Court with a 5-4 majority. First, they ruled that Florida should halt their recount. They overruled the state-wide recount, citing lack of uniform standards to determining voters’ intent on the ballots. Lastly, they decided that it was not possible to complete an acceptable recount before the Electoral College met for final votes on December 18 (the dissenting opinion pointed out that the recount could have been completed, had the court not stopped it in the first place). Gore finally conceded the election the day after the ruling.
George W. Bush was installed as the 43rd president. The final electoral score was 271-266. Bush won 47.9% of the popular vote, to Gore’s 48.8%. In official vote count, Gore led by about a half-million votes. It was the closest election since 1876 and the fourth in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the election. Gore’s 266 electors remain the highest result for a losing candidate. Some observers blamed the Green Party’s Ralph Nader for Gore’s loss. He won a little under 3 million votes, for 2.7%. In reality, more voters switched from Democrat to Republican than voted for Nader. The Bush family was the second instance of a father-son presidential duo, the first being John and John Quincy Adams (partial credit to grandfather and grandson William Henry and Benjamin Harrison).
What Did It Say About America?
We’ve reached a point in the blog were I’m probably going to be a little more blunt with my personal political beliefs. Bush v. Gore irreparably damaged the Supreme Court’s reputation. Since 2000, it has been an increasingly political institution, rather than a legal one. The conservative justices conveniently ignored their usual positions on states’ rights and limited government so their side could gain power. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans using the court to sway the 2020 election because they already did that exact thing twenty years ago! Some credit goes to the Gore campaign, though, for only asking for recounts of specific counties, not the entire state. The Republican Party had slowly been getting worse throughout the Twentieth Century, but I’ve come to believe that the Clinton years are when they are when they completely lost their minds. Although Clinton doesn’t deserve any defense for his misconduct, Republicans used the Ken Starr Investigation as a partisan tool to find any and all dirt in the Clintons’ personal lives. It’s worth noting that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, one of the President’s harshest critics, had multiple affairs during his political career. Two of his three marriages began as affairs with staffers, the second taking place during the Lewinsky scandal.
Was It The Right Decision?
Absolutely not! George W. Bush would go on to lead one of the most disastrous administrations of the modern era. By the end of his term, the US would be stuck in needless foreign conflicts and in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the Gore campaign did not effectively manage its messaging around the recount. The incessant nature of the recounts made him seem like a sore loser, worsened by the fact that he had already conceded once on Election Night. To be fair, the situation was impossible to predict. Later analysis showed that if Gore’s initial request to count the undervotes in disputed counties had been completed, Bush still would have won. However, if all uncounted ballots state-wide were included, Gore would have won. Reform candidate Pat Buchanan also admitted that he believed the extra votes in Palm Beach County were not meant for him. In the Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens (appointed by President Ford in 1977) wrote, “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.”