Life Watch: Win or Lose — Pro-Lifers Get the Blame

He was one of the smartest of the “political” people I knew. He had been active in conservative politics, been in former President Bush’s administration, been involved in a powerful consulting firm. He was plugged into all of the most recent surveys emanating from all quarters, he was in touch with Gov. George Bush’s campaign, he was connected to the Republican campaign committee in the Senate, and he could see around corners.

He was also a source of enduring confidence. I would call him persistently for reassurance whenever the polls would dip, with Bush waning, and he, my young friend and confidant, would always buck me up. But like everyone else, in this year of bizarre turns, he was taken by surprise. Eventually. As the polls had shown a tightening in the last days and hours of the campaign, I called him the day before the election, and as ever, he put me at ease: “You can sleep tonight the sleep of the just.” It would be a blowout, a sweep, and it could all be over by 3 p.m. the next day as the first exit polls started filtering out.

But those exit polls coming out in the afternoon would tell, of course, quite a different story. They had Al Gore winning in Florida and Michigan, but with Pennsylvania still very much in play. And that projection, announced early in the evening on television, apparently had an effect in keeping down the vote in the Florida Panhandle. A friend in Washington, D.C., ran some regression equations, comparing the vote in the Panhandle with the vote in the same region in other recent elections. By his rough estimate, this premature call on the part of the media probably accounted for a loss of some 10,000 to 15,000 Republican votes.

That bit of information added a further edge of resentment as the Gore people whipped up a storm of protest over several hundred people who might have been confused by the ballot in southern Florida. Or as the Gore people strained to wipe out Bush’s lead by counting “dimpled chads”—slots in the ballot that were touched but not finally punched through. In that way Democratic officials in the precincts, touched by the Muse, would divine the intentions that the voters had left infirmly expressed.

When the issue was taken to the highest court in Florida, I struck off a minor screed of my own in National Review about the gang that preciously calls itself the “Supreme Court of Florida.” No one could have been under any illusion that this cluster of politicians in robes was a college of jurists deliberating in a disinterested way about the principles of law. They could be depended on to intervene on the side of Gore, and with the trappings of law—the familiar weaving of legal terms and the playacting done by judges—they did exactly that.

James Baker, responding for Bush, finally struck the right chord: This was a political decision, by a politicized court. The judges had not even waited for a motion from Gore’s campaign before they rushed to defend his interests. If the judges were throwing over the discipline of judges and acting in a political way, then the matter should have been brought into a larger political arena where Republicans had assets of their own.

The Supreme Court in Florida was invoking its “equity” powers to rewrite the statutes on the reporting of votes and the staging of hand counts. But if the court was pretending to resolve a ((conflict” in the statutes, the legislature of Florida could speak with authority on the meaning of its own statutes. It could confirm the authority of the secretary of state in her reading of the law and her resolve not to credit a process of recounting that was now affected at many points with manipulation and arbitrariness. The governor could then stand behind the secretary of state in certifying the results to Congress and settling the electoral votes of the state. If the attorney general, a Democrat, challenged those results, then the houses of Congress would have to reach a judgment. And if the electoral vote of Florida could not be assigned, the House could then proceed to the election of the president.

These are portentous steps, which must give us all pause. If Congress got back into the business of challenging electoral votes, we can only imagine that the Democrats in control of Congress would have sought to grind down in challenges even Ronald Reagan’s landslides. But this is a point of caution: Things may indeed unravel in this way when politicians, desperate to win, shed all restraints.

The Republican governor of Florida affected to be in an awkward position because he was rumored to bear some relation to the presidential candidate. But did anyone believe that if the election were turning on a challenge to the vote in Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley would be recusing himself because his brother happened to be the manager of the Gore campaign? As usual, the Republicans were straining to apologize for themselves and be fastidious, while the Democrats shook off those superstitions and were determined, as ever, to do what needed to be done. But after the decision of the Supreme Court in Florida, it appeared for a while that the Republicans were being delivered from the haze that usually engulfs them. They seemed stripped now of their illusions and gripped by a wholesome sense of outrage.

But then old habits started reasserting themselves. Governor Rowland of Connecticut remarked, “I’m not sure most people think any supreme court, state or federal, would do anything blatantly political.” He did not see then anything to be gained by making a political target of the courts. With this kind of illusion, the Republicans will be preserved in their stupor and political imbecility forevermore. But that was not the end of Governor Rowland’s genius. Just a week earlier, in a meeting of Republican governors, he surveyed the wreckage of the election and spoke in a familiar code. “The message for our party,” he said, “is that we have to be far more moderate, far more tolerant.” And what do you suppose that he and his colleagues had in mind?

Would we startle anyone if we observed that Rowland was referring obliquely to the A-word (abortion) and the “social issues”? But we might also be forgiven the question: Had Bush, in his campaign, sounded too heavily his concern about gay rights, or expressed with an unseemly accent his reservations about abortion? Had he charged around the landscape in Connecticut, Michigan, and Pennsylvania strongly playing on these themes while his advisers were gamely trying to restrain him with a sense of moderation? Are we describing the same campaign?

Bush never once mentioned the Boy Scouts, though he was repeatedly urged to use that simple lever on the issue of homosexuality and the intolerance of the left. By the end of the campaign he had never even endorsed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act—never mind any attempt to use that issue as a gentle way of making an argument over abortion and marking off a path of moderation. By the very advice of Republican governors like Rowland, Bush had shaped a campaign that would be mainly silent on the moral questions and put its accent on items like Social Security.

But as the surveys revealed, that was the issue that worked powerfully for Gore in his late surge. And so, those clever Republican governors who brought forth Bush and gave him the benefit of their counsel all failed to deliver their states. Engler in Michigan, Thompson in Wisconsin, Ridge in Pennsylvania—all failed to deliver. And as part of their alibis now, they blame—who else?—the pro-lifers.

All of which may prove that one can be immersed in politics as a profession and still be witless. A glance at the map and the surveys reveals that the states that resisted the surge for Gore were the socially conservative states, the ones that were not voting mainly over Social Security. The election would not have pivoted on Florida if Gore had carried his home state of Tennessee, along with such traditionally Democratic states as Arkansas and West Virginia. Clearly, the outcome was not random. As Gore reinvented himself to become more of a national Democrat, he detached himself from that young man who had been able to win elections in Tennessee.

Bush has enough wit to see himself that this was no random event, that he owes his support to the constituency that cares most profoundly about those issues he professed to share with them—but then talked nothing about. Within the Republican Party the wish to avoid abortion and the social issues will always be at work. But the aftermath of the election served up for George W. lessons that have to be salutary: He can be under no illusions any longer as to who are his enemies and his allies. He can be cordial and affable, but there is no rationale for any spurious gestures of “reaching out” to the other side. If Bush manages to pull through to victory, there should be no apologies, no repenting for having been elected. He should get on with the business that he and his party have meant to do. Neither should he suffer a trace of hesitation in expressing, in the measures of his administration, the character of that coalition that brought forth a Republican president with a Republican Congress for the first time in 48 years.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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