Gore's Villains

After a week of making surrealistic claims about the incompetence of Florida's voters and hurling incendiary political charges that embarrassed even the Democratic establishment, the Gore campaign on Monday assumed a line of public rhetoric consistent with the Clinton administration's established strategy for dealing with acrimony and scandal. That strategy involves, among other elements, the melding of issues and characters, especially creating a self-serving storyline and then casting it with demonized caricatures of the opposition.

Gore, using the White House itself as a backdrop, redefined his struggle with the Bush campaign over the allocation of Florida's electoral votes. At a press conference held in the shadow of the office he hopes to occupy, the vice president claimed lugubriously that his campaign was addressing a higher, more noble matter: "the integrity of our democracy," which far outweighed the small matter of who would assume the presidency. Meanwhile, a phalanx of Gore shills were deployed to the nightly talk shows to vilify George W. Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Bush, according to a variety of Gore aides who parroted the same talking points, was trying to use the courts to stifle the voice of the people, while Harris was no better than a Soviet commissar. (Bush had opened himself to the charge by his failed attempt to stop the hand-counting of ballots in a few overwhelmingly Democratic counties; Harris had become a "commissar" by informing those counties that they would have to finish their work within the time allotted by law.)

From a narrative point of view, Gore's new morality tale of a titanic struggle against anti-democratic forces was a distinct improvement over the storylines he had been floating since November 7. The foremost of these involved the supposed disenfranchisement of thousands of Floridians who would have voted for him but for a "confusing" and "illegal" ballot in Palm Beach county. There were numerous problems in this narrative, among them that Gore's supporters were made to seem inept, which opened them and him to widespread scorn.

But the biggest problem with this storyline is that it lacked a villain. Designed by and approved by local Florida Democrats, the controversial ballot could not be tied to any Bush allies. Lacking any antipathy to exploit, Gore attempted to mobilize guilt in its place; his campaign portrayed its blundering supporters as, once again, victims of history. Because many of the supposedly confused voters were blacks and elderly Jews, such figures as Jesse Jackson and film maker Michael Moore adopted one of the most grotesquely shameless political positions in recent political history: the exploitation of slavery and even the Holocaust in the interest of padding Al Gore's Florida vote. As Moore wrote on his Web site in arguing for a new vote in Palm Beach County, "There are tens of thousands of people who lived through [the Holocaust], escaped the ovens, and are now living out their final years in South Florida....Sixty-two years ago...the Holocaust began in full force on what was called Kristallnacht. The German government sent goon squads throughout the country to trash and burn the homes, stores and temples of its Jewish citizens. Seven years and 6 million slaughtered lives later, the Jewish people of Europe were virtually extinct. A few survived. I will not allow those who survived to come here to this 'land of the free' be abused again."

Republicans, in the meantime, were again demonstrating that they had lost any sense of effective rhetoric and narrative the day Ronald Reagan left the White House. Characteristically, Bush seemed incapable of addressing the Florida situation at all. His leading spokespersons, James Baker and Karen Hughes, publicly characterized the Florida recount debate in abstract terms, addressing the issues in terms of "fairness," "accuracy," and "subjectivity."

In fact, Bush aides had available to them any number of characters around whom to build a self-serving narrative in the manner of the Gore campaign, but made no effort to exploit their opportunities. The most such obvious opportunity involved the Palm Beach county official who had designed the controversial ballot, Theresa LePore. As The Wall Street Journal's John Fund has noted, LePore's political career is now on the line; there is a recall effort underway against her, and she is being sued by voters. Yet Lepore never recused herself from the recount debate, and indeed cast a deciding vote in favor of recounting Palm Beach county's 460,000 ballots. The result is that the national interest and the question of presidential legitimacy have been allowed to become intermingled with the personal interests of a local party hack.

Events in Florida are moving rapidly. Court decisions and further administrative actions may change the issue landscape entirely. If so, the Gore campaign may well abandon Monday's storyline in exchange for a different one. For example, the decision by officials in heavily Democratic Broward County late Monday to forego a hand count tends to undermine the Gore campaign's claims about Florida's soviet Republicans, and may result in the spectacle of Democrats suing each other. Nonetheless, the question of how Americans now debate political issues in this country has been revisited in a revealing way. Those in search of Bill Clinton's legacy can follow its cacophony south.

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