Tags: Post-Election | Campaign | Parties | Swap | Philosophies

In Post-Election Campaign, Parties Swap Philosophies

Monday, 13 November 2000 12:00 AM

Consider the latest events in Florida. The Bush campaign, which has talked all year about "local control'' and "trusting the American people,'' is heading into federal court Monday morning (the federal courts are often maligned by the GOP) to stop the manual counting of ballots in Palm Beach County, because it doesn't like the counting standards that have been formulated at the local level by local officials.

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign, which has talked all year about new federal solutions for local problems, is declaring its respect for the Florida law that allows local officials to devise their own manual recount criteria – a law, in the campaign's estimation, that should not be subject to federal meddling. Especially now, in a county that is predominantly Democratic.

In the heat of battle, ideological consistency is often the first casualty.

Not long ago George W. Bush was talking about the importance of local autonomy in education, about trusting people to govern themselves at the local level. He talked about trusting the states to decide state issues with minimal federal interference; he declined, for example, to take a stand on South Carolina's flying of the Confederate flag.

But contrast that small-government credo with the remarks made Sunday by James Baker, veteran GOP troubleshooter. On the Sunday talk shows, he condemned the Florida election law, which, he said, grants "subjective discretion to [local] election officials.'' He complained that there are "no uniform standards here, no objective standards to guide them,'' as they determine whether partial holes in punch-card ballots should be recorded as legitimate votes. He wondered, "How do you divine the intent of the voter with those little punch holes?''

The key to interpreting those holes is the perforated paper punch-out known as "chad.'' Last month, Gore and Bush were saying in the debates that momentous issues were at stake in this election. That was then; now their careers appear to hinge on chad hanging, swinging, pregnant or dimpled. This has become the Chad Election.

No wonder Baker is hunting for remedies not usually sought by Republicans. He reasoned Sunday that since Palm Beach County officials are mostly Democrats, and might therefore set chad criteria that create votes for Gore, this could violate the rights of other voters. Hence, the federal injunction sought today by the Bush campaign. As he put it: "We dispute whether [the Florida law] is constitutional, under our federal Constitution.''

It was pointed out to Baker, however, that in 1997 George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, signed a law declaring that "a manual recount may be conducted in preference to a machine recount.'' He replied that Texas doesn't give "carte blanche authority'' to local officials unlike in Florida, where "one county can decide to do a manual recount one way, another county can decide to do it another way.'' (The Democratic response: Isn't this what local control is all about?)

Other Bush surrogates also took up Baker's case Sunday, voicing the need for federal intervention in this local matter. Bob Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate, complained that "the Democrats control the local machinery'' in south Florida and said hopefully that federal judges have cracked down on localities in the past, such as in cases of racial discrimination. And Mary Matalin, the TV talking head and former spokesman for Bush's father, dismissed the local officials in Palm Beach as "party hacks.''

Meanwhile, the Democrats are broadcasting their own philosophical flip-flops. The party that has traditionally backed federal intervention on a broad range of issues is whistling a different tune at the moment. On the talk shows Sunday, a parade of Gore surrogates spoke in glowing terms about the wisdom of the Florida law and the sanctity of local control.

William Daley, the Gore campaign chairman, declared: "The people of Florida ought to have the right to have their laws followed.'' Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, said that "we ought to follow the state law ... do what the law dictates.''

And Warren Christopher, the veteran Democratic troubleshooter, said: "This is the procedure called for by Florida law. ... These are local officials chosen by the people in their counties. ... It is not useful to parody what these people do'' in determining the criteria for judging those punch ballots. And he asked, "Wouldn't it be tragic if the wrong man was chosen because we didn't follow the procedures of Florida law?''

The Gore camp is also indulging in a bit of gamesmanship. On Thursday, it was the first to threaten legal action in Florida, citing thousands of Palm Beach County voters confused by the "butterfly ballot,'' and a number of observers, including some prominent Democrats, voiced deep concern about Gore's implied willingness to sue his way into the Oval Office. So the Gore camp pulled back its rhetoric, and now it is pleased to point out that Bush is the first to run to the federal courts.

Yet Gore's newfound defense of states' rights and local control may not last long; he still is reserving the right to sue, even after all the Florida votes (absentees, hand recounts, everything) finally are tabulated, presumably by the end of this week. Christopher parried the issue Sunday: "I have no interest in giving up options. ... That [lawsuit] option will have to be considered as we move forward in this process.''

How about forgetting the lawsuit option and just agreeing to a manual recount in Florida in all counties, those where Republicans predominate as well as those chiefly Democratic?

At first Christopher punted, saying that decision would have to be made by Gore. Then he said: "We would not stand in the way.'' Yet Baker, asked the same question Sunday, said a statewide manual recount would not be acceptable, again because he had concerns about the lack of "uniform rules'' and the autonomy of local officials. As he put it: "This is a matter of principle.''

But this is really a matter of chad and who gets to interpret it. So it appears that the traditional Republican and Democratic principles about government will remain in abeyance for a while.

(C) 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Consider the latest events in Florida. The Bush campaign, which has talked all year about local control'' and trusting the American people,'' is heading into federal court Monday morning (the federal courts are often maligned by the GOP) to stop the manual counting of...
Monday, 13 November 2000 12:00 AM
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