The Non-Crisis Crisis

Steven Hayward

November 1, 2000

It has always been in the cards that if Gov. George W. Bush won a narrow victory over Vice President Al Gore, there would follow a vigorous campaign from the Left to de-legitimize the Bush victory. Now, if Bush eeks out an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote (as seems likely), the campaign to de-legitimize his election will take on a ferocity not seen since the election of 1860. It may become a full-fledged crisis of the regime, as the people may come to doubt the wisdom of our Constitution.

All along there was the prospect that Bush’s victory would be said to have been based on a deception, or on his winsome personality, or on the Nader vote, or on Al Gore’s defective campaign, or all of these factors. Now it will be said that Bush didn’t even win. He will be called “the accidental president.” Gore may or may not go quietly into the good night; we might see demands for a detailed recount of Florida that could take weeks. (None of the TV pundits seemed to notice that the man Gore sent out to deliver his message that the show wasn’t over, Bill Daley, is the son of the man widely thought to have stolen the 1960 election from Richard Nixon. Is this historical irony, or history repeating itself?) We may see overt pressure on electors in states Bush won to change their votes to reflect “the popular will.”

The inevitable ruckus over the Electoral College is likely to pass over consideration that it will have worked exactly as intended by the Founders, and will also tend to distract us from the political message the voting results can tell us. One of the purposes of the Electoral College is to make sure that a candidate’s majority is spread over the nation, and is not concentrated in one or two sections of the country where a large population or sectional interest is at odds with the interests and opinions of scattered minorities. In other words, to win the Electoral College, a candidate cannot afford to go against the opinions of voters in small states. Gore’s liberal views on gun control, the environment, and government activism clearly cost him support in heartland states including even his own home state of Tennessee.

Take away Gore’s large margins in New York and California, and Bush would win the popular vote easily. The genius of the Electoral College is that a candidate cannot win simply by carrying the big cities and the big states; he must be acceptable to a broad range of smaller states, too. But Gore was not. With Florida, Bush will have carried 30 of the 50 states.

Beyond the subtleties of the Electoral College, it is being said that the even split in the popular vote suggests that voters are evenly divided between the two parties, between liberalism and conservatism. This is dead wrong. Bush revived his flagging campaign right after Labor Day at the precise moment he swung to the right and began attacking Gore as a big government liberal. The polls bear this out. A Gallup poll of 18 issues ranging from same-sex marriage to opening up Alaska to oil drilling from found a larger plurality of voters siding with the Bush position on 13 of the 18 issues. One of the last polls before the election showed Bush with a 10-point advantage on the issue of “who would do a better job with taxes.” After Gore’s strenuous effort to tar the Bush tax cut with the “top 1 percent” brush, this has to be counted as a repudiation of liberal class warfare. These figures suggest that the majority of voters in the U.S. are moderately
conservative. With a strong economy and high approval ratings for the incumbent administration, Gore should have been the odds-on favorite to win. That he did not suggests he ran too far to the Left by emphasizing populist class warfare, instead of running as a centrist clone of Clinton. This left a vacuum that Gov. Bush was only too happy to fill.

Having campaigned as the person who can reach across party lines in Washington will fortuitously serve Bush well as President. He may even try to form a de facto coalition government, which usually only occurs in parliamentary systems during times of genuine national crisis, such as an economic depression or a war. There has never been a “government of national unity” in the U.S., and there is no exogenous crisis such as a war at the moment. Just getting through the next four years may be crisis enough.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.