We’ll Get Over It If You Get Off Your High Horse

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

January 28, 2001

Get Over It.

It’s now a Republican battle cry, a demand that the circumstances of George W. Bush’s ascension to the White House be forgotten in the interests of a successful Bush presidency—oh, yes, and “for the good of the country.”

G.O.I. is everywhere a G.O.P. mantra. Bob Tingle, a letter writer to the Providence Journal, criticizes Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) for challenging the legitimacy of Bush’s election. “Patrick,” Tingle wrote, “needs to get over it.” At the inauguration, a group of the president’s supporters confronted a group of demonstrators with the shout: “Go meditate and get over it!”

And you have to love the creativity of American entrepreneurs. According to the Atlanta Constitution, a California wine company is offering a product called Sore Loserman Whine. Drinking it must put you a cut above your average white-wine-and-brie liberal.

Of course, Bush supporters want everyone to move on and stop asking why the election was finally settled by Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices rather than by further counting. But there’s a different issue that those most upset about the 2000 election should be focusing on: How can all who have so far refused to “get over it” become reformers instead of whiners? Inchoate, untethered anger is ineffectual. When Mario Cuomo ran for mayor of New York City in 1977—unsuccessfully, it should be said—one of his more powerful slogans was “Put Your Anger to Work.” The most appropriate post-Florida question is thus the one posed by Julian Bond of the NAACP: “How can anger be turned into action?”

The anger is justified. But whining won’t put new voting machines into counties that need them. Complaining won’t unearth the facts that will prevent one, two or many Floridas from marring future elections. Fulminating won’t get moderate judges appointed or limit the size of the tax cut or further the cause of social reform. Bush’s opponents should offer to “get over it” only if the president and his allies offer to take some steps their way.

Last week, GOP leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and President Bush himself, signaled they might be willing to look into voting problems in Florida and around the nation—and that would be a start. It is not just Democratic voters who are disadvantaged by inadequate voting equipment. Many Republican voters in rural areas also face problems.

Correcting these problems is an economic issue. The worst voting equipment is often (though not uniformly) used in counties and cities that are most strapped for cash. If a mayor or county councilman asks a citizens’ meeting whether the government should spend more money on schools, transit, police, parks or voting machines, you know where voting equipment will come in the rankings.

The Supreme Court majority told us in Bush v. Gore that presidential voting is a national issue. It did so by using equal protection arguments to block every path available to local officials for resolving the dispute themselves. Having done so, the court makes the case for national action. Estimates of the cost of updating voting equipment nationwide run to between $6 billion and $7 billion. Isn’t democracy worth the money?

A new Voting Rights Act that includes federal spending and follows the court’s suggestions for fair and uniform procedures in federal elections would at least take some of the partisan edge and bitterness off its contested ruling.

But beware of hidden agendas. Supporters of campaign finance reform, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), fear that proposals to include electoral reform in legislation banning soft money are merely ploys to delay and thus kill efforts to fix our political money system. A sure way to deepen the already rancid public cynicism would be for Bush and his allies to use an investigation of the Florida mess as an excuse for foiling urgently needed campaign finance reform.

In the meantime, as Bond notes, many of the problems raised in Florida—allegations of people being knocked off the voter rolls and voter intimidation—can also be dealt with through litigation under the existing Voting Rights Act. That litigation is going forward, and it will prove useful as another means of unearthing the facts about exactly what went wrong.

Another implication of the disputed election is that Bush’s opponents have a right to insist that decisions made during his term bind future administrations as little as possible. James K. Galbraith, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says that a president who lost the popular vote and won a disputed victory should have—note the small “d”—the democratic humility not to press his advantage too hard.

As a practical matter, that means that Bush’s opponents can look for ideological restraint when it comes to the appointment of judges (especially, though not exclusively, Supreme Court justices). Judicial appointees have lifetime tenure and can affect policy for a generation or more.

The battle over John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general ought to be taken by the administration as fair warning. If Bush were to appoint ideologues to the courts, he’d be courting war. An alternative that would be fair to both sides—and increase public confidence in judges—comes from Stephen Holmes, a professor at New York University Law School. He suggests having both parties agree to the appointment of moderates “who are not seen as tied to either party.” He says this should be done “publicly and openly.” Depoliticizing judicial appointments should be a priority, Holmes believes. Doing so would ease suspicions that the law was used “as a political weapon” during Kenneth Starr’s tenure as independent counsel and by the Supreme Court in its Florida decision.

Galbraith, a former congressional staffer, also argues that, in the current political circumstances, Bush’s opponents have a right to demand that the new president not use tax cuts to tie the hands of his successors.

All tax bills necessarily affect future revenue, and there is certainly a case for limiting the size of any tax cut now. But some tax bills include provisions that kick in only years after the law is passed. Such “exploding” provisions are often used to reduce the upfront revenue losses and make tax cut proposals look “cheaper” than they actually are.

Galbraith says it’s fair to expect that whatever tax reductions are passed should take effect within the four years of the Bush presidency and not beyond them. If a future president—including, if he wins a second term, Bush—wants more tax cuts after 2004, he (or she) can push for them then. Besides, if Bush is claiming that his tax cut is designed to spur the economy now, what good will a tax reduction in 2006 do us?

It’s always the case that the victory of one party provides the interest groups that support the other party with great organizing and fundraising opportunities. Florida has certainly had that effect for liberal interest groups. For Democrats as a party, the existence of mass anger—only a fifth of Democrats, according to a CBS news poll, accept Bush’s election as legitimate—might allow the party to play catch-up to the Republicans in creating a broad base of small donors.

For African Americans who are especially disgruntled over the election result, Bond sees the Bush years as good for mobilizing black citizens. Both Bond and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) point to what they see as a remarkable aspect of the post-Florida reaction: Rather than being turned off by politics, liberal and Democratic constituencies are more aware than ever of the importance of participation. “We understand now, as all Americans do, about how important small numbers of votes can be,” said Bond.

But Frank offers a cautionary note, as does a close aide to Gore who asked not to be named. The danger of Democratic anger over 2000, says Frank, is that it might distract attention from the need to press issues that will help the party with swing voters in the future: a prescription drug benefit for seniors, a patients’ bill of rights, a minimum wage increase, and a defense of Social Security and Medicare.

And anger over Florida, says the Gore aide, shouldn’t blind Democrats to the fact that they should have run a far better campaign than they did. “We should not even have been in Florida in the first place,” he says, meaning Gore should never have let the election get as close as it was. “We failed to develop a powerful enough agenda to win the election…We’ve got to allow our party to develop new ideas.”

The Bush administration will naturally reject the notion that the president should be asked to govern any differently than he would have if he had won a clear victory. But how Bush won is important not simply because Democrats feel cheated, but because the nature of his victory suggests that he does not have what Ronald Reagan had in 1980 or Lyndon B. Johnson had in 1964: a mandate for a his program.

However clear Bush may have been about his goals as president, losing the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots to Gore has real political meaning, as does the combined majority won by Gore and Ralph Nader. Many Americans have qualms about large parts of Bush’s program. It’s worth recalling that Gore closed the gap on Bush at the end of the 2000 campaign by raising sharp questions about Bush’s privatization plans for Social Security. Bush cannot claim that because he made it to the White House, the country has endorsed this or any other aspect of his program, including his large tax cut.

That’s why Democrats in Congress, who are less publicly agitated about the recount than the party’s base, should stop seeing it as some kind of left-wing cause. An insistence that Bush recognize the peculiar circumstances of his victory is, in fact, a demand for moderation.

But if enough Democrats in Congress defect to help Bush pass his program—or if Republicans, with their very narrow majorities, hang together to get it done—Bush can hardly be blamed for doing what he said he’d do.

Or can he?

If “getting over” the divisive and troubling endgame of the election is supposed to be in the national interest, doesn’t the president have an obligation to help? Is it unfair to insist that he pursue a more moderate course? He seems inclined to do that on his education bill, and good for him if he does. But education is primarily a local issue. It involves sums of federal money infinitely smaller than those included in the Bush tax cut. Taxes, Social Security, Medicare and the federal judiciary are big national questions. Will Bush’s approach to education be the rule, or will it be an exception that provides a nice diversion from his approach to the ideological big-ticket items?

If Bush governs as if nothing of importance happened in Florida or on the Supreme Court, all who believe otherwise will feel no pressure to get over it, and every incentive to get even. A president who preaches civility and responsibility should contemplate what that means for his presidency, and for our country. E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-editor (with William Kristol) of “Bush v. Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary,” which will be published in February by the Brookings Institution Press.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.