Capitol Chronicle

How the Grinch Stole Florida

Capitol Chronicle
By Doug Potter

Blame it on Cain,

Don't blame it on me,

Oh, oh -- it's Nobody's fault,

But we need Somebody to burn.

-- Elvis Costello

As of this writing, the U.S. government still has no figurehead -- er, president-elect. With any kind of luck, the rest of us can enjoy this blissful and comic interlude at least until the new NBA season gets serious. What could be better? Embarrassed pundits, mudslinging pols, daily unmasking of vote-stealing chicanery -- all accompanied by hourly wannabe presidential headlines along the lines of, "Pot Calls Kettle 'Black'! Kettle Responds, 'I Know You Are, But What Am I?'"

The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann passed through Austin last week, calling the unsettled election "scary and disturbing"; Matthew Miller of U.S. News claimed we are learning things about our system of governance "better left unknown." Yet to any real reporter worth his laptop, this is the best national politics story for a generation, and to judge from the polls (not the pollsters), the voters pretty much agree.

But if we don't have a president, we certainly do have a national scapegoat: Ralph Nader. So-called "progressives" began calling for "spoiler" Ralph's head a couple of weeks before the election, and after the Florida stalemate, it has become conventional wisdom among prog publications (including this one) that if not for Ralph and the Green Party's whopping 97,000 votes (2%!) in Florida, Al and Tipper would be picking out new wallpaper for the White House instead of sweating chad in Tennessee. So Ralph is not only the Grinch who stole Florida, he's to blame for every real and imagined outrage soon to be perpetrated by George Bush, The Sequel: welfare deform, capital punishment, environmental degradation, globalization, star wars, defense spending, military adventurism, flouting of international law. ... The only problem with this list of contemporary horrors is that (rhetoric aside) "centrist" Al Gore's positions on all these issues are virtually indistinguishable from those of GOP "moderate" Bush, and that the Clinton/Gore administration was indeed "to the right of Richard Nixon" (so saith Gore supporter Michael Ventura). Even on the environment, as The Nation's David Corn has pointed out, Gore is largely a fraud: "How many nuclear power plants has Gore shut down? In fact, the Clinton-Gore Administration has demanded that the Kyoto global warming accords include emission credits for nuclear power, which would promote the development of nuclear power -- and more potential Chernobyls -- abroad." Nevertheless, Ralph Nader, too dangerous to be allowed even to attend the presidential "debates," was also to blame for Gore's dithering campaign, his condescending noblesse-oblige style, and his debate make-up artist (apparently moonlighting from his regular gig with Krusty the Clown).

So, instead of making common cause with Nader -- the only real democrat, let alone "populist," in the race -- the usual suspects have rushed to the defense of Al Gore, a candidate so lackluster he couldn't even win his home state. "Even more to the point," added Nashville-based writer Tim Wise on November 8, "Bush received the votes of 12 times more [Florida] Democrats than Nader did, and 5.25 times more self-identified liberals than Nader did in Florida, indicating that progressive voters and those who might have been seen as a natural lock for Gore, actually were stolen not by the Greens, but by the Republicans. Now folks, when your base is more likely to vote for George W. Bush than Ralph Nader, this not only is bad news for Nader, but also makes quite clear that Gore -- not Nader -- is to blame for his loss in Florida."

Yet it remains amusing to hear the name-calling directed at Nader (one of this country's few genuine political heroes), not only from mainstream publications but from so-called liberal or left-wing sources. There was the predictable red-baiting from Thomas (the Free-trade Frother) Friedman, recommending Nader for ambassador to North Korea; the Times' editors tsk-tsking over Nader's "self-indulgent" campaign; Anthony Lewis (in defense of the most cynical Democratic administration on record) attacking Nader's "cynicism"; and Martin Peretz's Al-batty New Republic denouncing Nader for "narcissism" and the Greens as "the people who screwed Gore." (Peretz has been grooming Gore for the White House since he taught the Tennessee tyro at Harvard, leading one East Coast editor privately to remark, "Peretz will probably assassinate Nader.") Todd Gitlin, Gloria Steinem, John Conyers (all purblind partisans of the man from Occidental Petroleum) trotted out the predictable "elitism" charge, and the barely veiled "racism" charge. But they fail to note that their candidate, Al Gore, spent eight years eagerly running away from minority voters, suddenly rediscovering them in August 2000. Nader's own response to such Democratic hypocrisy was pointed: "The Democrats give [minority voters] far more rhetoric than reality. ... For the Democrats to do what they did on so-called welfare reform -- beat up on $300-a-month welfare mom -- and not do anything about corporate welfare, which is far greater in dollars ... is unconscionable."

Yet there was the L.A. Times' Robert Scheer insisting that only Al Gore could possibly represent minority citizens, cynically employing what all these so-called progressive rationalizations amount to (aka Maggie Thatcher's battle cry), "TINA": There Is No Alternative. "The lesson of election 2000, no matter the final photo-finish outcome," wrote Schoolmaster Scheer, "is that, for better or worse, the Democratic Party is the only political home for those with a progressive agenda. ... The Democratic Party, for all of its contradictions and shortcomings, is the essential arena for progressives to fight for their programs, just as the Republican Party provides that venue for the Christian Coalition, which rudely rejected Pat Buchanan and kept its troops in the GOP."

In the interests of equal time, I asked Travis County Greens co-chair Sean Hale if he was yet weeping with shame over Al Gore's loss. "The Democrats have no one to blame but themselves," Hale said. "Even in Florida, 12% of Democrats voted for Bush -- is that Ralph Nader's fault? The Democrats should have offered a better candidate. Al Gore sunk himself in the debates, when all he wanted to do was suck up to the very same voters Bush was speaking to. When Bush was defending the Texas death penalty, Al Gore couldn't say fast enough that he wanted to kill people, too."

What about the Supreme Court, and the environment? Hale remains unimpressed: "Gore voted to confirm Scalia, and Gore's defense of the environment is all reputation. Gore wrote an enviro book [Earth in the Balance], but in eight years of Clinton and Gore, automobile fuel efficiency has not only not gone up, it's gone down -- even Reagan and Bush had a better record. But these guys get away with it, because 'They're Democrats.' The major parties will continue to disgust people and alienate people," concluded Hale. "They will continue to discourage people from voting. They can't blame that on the Greens."

Bring Back the Anti-Camping Ordinance

While pondering the election itself may be a rum business, the spectacle of dozens of high-priced television "reporters" camped out at 10th and Lavaca behind the Governor's Mansion -- while the bitter wind bloweth and the cold rain raineth every day -- should warm every citizen's heart. For days now (may it stretch into weeks!), one could drive by the Mansion at all hours, and watch carefully coifed talking heads checking their hair and make-up, rehearsing their sound bites, pleading into their earphones, and berating their film crews, all the while stomping their feet and flapping their arms in a bootless effort to stay warm. This looks like a job for the Coalition for the Homeless: Either bring these hapless vagrants a cup of hot chocolate and a Mrs. Johnson doughnut -- or else report them forthwith to the APD's No-Camping Brigade.

The collective purpose of this media sit-in?: a moment of visually Bushified "news" emanating from the Mansion. Alas, The Candidate has long since hied to his ranch in Crawford, whence he returned only briefly midweek, to reject his Nefarious Opponent's offer to hand count every damn vote in Florida. That historic moment was covered by only designated "pool" reporters, briefly allowed into the inner (and heated) sanctum.

Among the exiled suitors were (off and on) all the local boys and girls, the major state stations, at one time or another the various cable hotshots, and occasionally an international crew befuddled at the comic inefficiencies of U.S. democracy. By one estimate, about 50 nonresident reporters (and their crews) were haunting the grounds, occasionally wandering off to pose the Capitol or some other tall building into the background of a shot ponderously announcing, "With the Bush Campaign in Austin, where absolutely nothing has changed."

"It reminds me a little bit of Waco," said National Public Radio's Wade Goodwyn, holed up momentarily in his hotel room while he awaited a pool summons. "You wait every day for a 'briefing,' and it never comes -- mostly because everything that's happening is happening in Florida. It's tougher on the TV people, because they have to do stand-ups. They can't just phone in or tape or get in out of the cold and wait." He paused to update his producer on another line: "Nothing today. They say that every morning."

"The truth is," Goodwyn went on, "we're all here just as 'insurance,' in case something does happen. It's like waiting for Godot -- only not as much fun."

The more adventurous correspondents -- or at least those who weren't on permanent yellow-alert Mansion orders -- journeyed the 90 miles up to Crawford, where they delivered riveting bulletins on (I kid you not) portable road signs and stray neighborhood cats. The Candidate's Dog, the ingeniously named Spot, got a lot of ink, as well as photo ops: Candidate's Dog chasing Candidate's Stick, that sort of thing. Their bleary-eyed bosses, back at CNN or MSNBC or Fox News or whatever, had to keep feeding the idiot box and its relentless hunger. One evening on Lavaca, in a momentarily dry but still frigid wind, I watched several correspondents rehearsing their 9pm sound bite: multiple desperate variations on the day's lead story: "Today Bush campaign chairman Donald Evans announced the campaign would not be requesting a recount in the closely contested race in Iowa."

"It gets tough out here sometimes," said KVUE's Erin Fletcher as she shivered out of camera range. "But I usually cover City Council, and now I've got a front-row ticket to history. I wouldn't be anywhere else."

Televisa International's Mariella Egusquiza, following her 9pm wrap-up for Mexico City and elsewhere, was a little more jaded. She's the network's Washington correspondent, so she's seen the media frenzy at least once before: "It's just like the Monica Lewinsky scandal: We're all trying to get one scrap of news, we're all trying to gather the last sound bite of the day. Today, except for the Iowa announcement, there is nothing.

"The whole thing has been a good U.S. democracy-in-action story, but it's also a little funny. The U.S. is always pointing fingers at elections in other countries, but this time they can't seem to do it right themselves. We just had a wonderful, clean, and fair election in Mexico -- so in Mexico, some of the people are laughing at the U.S. They call it a 'Country of Soap Operas.' I've learned a lot about the U.S. electoral system -- I suppose I could pass a citizenship test.

"Everyone in Mexico, like here, would like to see it come to some conclusion, that someone would finally be elected. But I suppose it's so closely split because neither candidate was able to excite the people." end story

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