Yesterday the San Diego Union-Tribune published a very worthwhile editorial by Joseph Perkins on the impact that Al Gore’s decision to contest the 2000 presidential election had on the country, how it created the situation we are in now, and how it may do long-term damage to American democracy.
It’s a fascinating read.
Now I’d like to carry his analysis one step farther.
Perkins traces the potential crisis in American democracy to Al Gore’s refusal to put his own personal interest in winning ahead of the good of the nation. That created a crisis where none should have existed and put the nation through a tremendous convulsion that, despite the interposition of 9/11, has left the nation in an extraordinarily divided and partisan state.
But can the chain be traced back further than Gore? Is there a reason why he, at that moment in history, decided to throw the nation into a constitutional crisis? Was it simply his own volition or can it be traced to other causes?
It seems to me that a case can be made that the reason he did so may be that he had just spent four years under the political tutelage of Bill Clinton.
Now, I am not one to try to blame every evil under the sun on Bill Clinton. As evil as Clinton was, I am not seething with rage against him. To me he has become a joke–a self-parody–who occasionally turns up in the news and who I greet with little more than indifference.
But it strikes me that Clinton may have been a significant influence on Gore that either explicitly advised Gore to contest the election or who implicitly set the example that Gore followed in doing so.
As evidence for this, I would point to a moment that occurred during the impeachment brouhaha. As later reported by one of the participants, there was a meeting between Clinton, James Carville, and George Stephanopolous. This meeting took place at a moment when it was clear that the chief executive of the United States had lied under oath in a court of law. The fact that he had lied in order to cover his sexual misdeeds was a fact that members of his party would use to distract the public (“It’s all about sex!”) from the fact that the chief executive of the nation–a man sworn to uphold the laws of the land–had just violated one of the most sacred of those laws by offering false evidence to the judiciary.
At this particularly dark moment in the history of the Clinton presidency, George Stephanopolous was overcome with the magnitude of the problem, the fact that the president could well be impeached by the House and possibly even convicted in the Senate, which would result not only in the humiliation of Clinton himself but also in putting the nation through a horrible national crisis.
Moved by these considerations, he wondered aloud whether Clinton might ought to do the statemanlike thing and consider resigning, for his own good and the good of the nation.
This would not have been an unprecidented thing. When faced with impeachment President Nixon had mustered the statesmanship to resign and cut short the Watergate crisis that was tearing the country apart. Other presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, had crises come upon them late enough in their terms that they decided not to run for re-election for the good of themselves, their party, and the nation. They willing let go the reigns of power for the greater good.
George Stephanopolous suggested that Clinton consider doing the same.
Clinton and Carville looked at him as if he had just transformed into an Andorian.
It was inconceivable to them that anyone would voluntarily give up power. They had been schooled in a political philosophy that involved winning at all costs. Power was something to be relinquished only when it was pried from one’s cold, dead fingers. (This incident also served to them as proof that Stephanopolous was weak and didn’t “get it.”)
And so Clinton didn’t resign.
And the opposing party fell into the “It’s all about sex!” trap and didn’t keep the public’s attention adequately focused on the fact that the chief executive had lied under oath.
And he wasn’t convicted in the Senate.
And the nation went through a huge, polarizing crisis.
This crisis set the stage for the bitterness of the 2000 election. It left both the Democrats and the Republicans out for blood, both seeking vengeance and payback for what had happened with the Clinton fiasco. This is indisputably one of the ways what happened in 2000 can be traced to Clinton.
But perhaps there is another way.
Perhaps that “win at any costs” mentality that shaped Clinton’s political outlook was something that he transferred to Gore. Perhaps he counseled Gore to contest the Florida results. Perhaps he had just mentored Gore long enough that Gore did it on his own. Gore was never an especially strong and decisive man, and whether by counsel or example, perhaps it was the influence of Clinton that pushed him over the edge in the decision to contest the 2000 Florida results.
From that, one domino after another fell, until we now end up with a still bitterly-divided nation, with countless lawyers lined up on both sides. If the vote is close come Tuesday, we may not have just one Florida, but six or seven, throwing the nation again into a Constitutional crisis and doing further grave and lasting harm to American society.
Bill Clinton is not the cause of every evil under the sun.
But he just may have been the cause of this one.
That, historians may determine, may be a key part of the Clinton legacy.