The Day After: What Happened at the Polls and What Happens Now

One day after Americans choose their next president, the Brookings Institution convened its traditional post election panel of experts to review the results of the election and analyze what factors led to Tuesday’s outcome. They also explored what lies ahead for the new president’s agenda, who he’s likely to appoint to key positions in the government, relations between the White House and Congress, and how outside forces can affect the success or failure of the new administration.


E.J. Dionne, Jr.: We organized this event on the assumption that we would know who the next president of the United States was at this moment. And what a foolish assumption that turned out to be. And obviously the content of the event will shift a little bit because we want to talk about what is the meaning of what I think is potentially a really serious crisis of legitimacy in our government. I thought the theme of the day is, “Honey, we blew up our electoral system.” And I say that light-heartedly but I also think it is also a very serious problem for our country, and I want us to get into that.

And then because we have so many brave souls here, they can decide which administration they want to tell us, and they would count votes in Florida. I must say before I turn to my friend, Tom Mann, to ask him to talk about this crisis, I remembered today one of my favorite political stories. I grew up in Massachusetts where electoral fraud is not unknown. And there is a story of a man who was dying in Springfield, Massachusetts, 70 miles from Boston. And he wrote his will and arranged to be buried in the district of a state senator called Billy Bulger, who is actually one of the funniest people in public life. He is not a state senator anymore. And friends said, “Why are you being buried 70 miles from your home?” And he replied, “I see no reason why my death should deprive me of my right to participate in the democratic process.” And I think we are going to hear a lot of such stories in coming days.

Before I turn to Tom also, I just want to tout some excellent Brookings events that are coming up. On Monday, November 13th from 10:00 a.m. to noon, there will be a great panel moderated by Steve Hess with Marvin Kalb, Robert Lichter, and Ron Nessen on how the television networks covered the 2000 presidential campaign. I think that Steve is setting up a count of how many times the 1876 election will be mentioned in the next few days.

And on November 8th at 1:00 p.m., there is going to be [the release of analysis] on growth at the ballot box, electing the shape of communities in November 2000. There were a lot growth-related initiatives on the ballot yesterday. I have the theory, in fact, that Al Gore did better in Arizona and Colorado yesterday than people expected. In part, because these are issues that may have brought more of his voters to the polls. And, finally, Paul Light’s excellent initiative, his appointee initiative, boy, is this prophetic, the headline on this item says, “Appointment Gridlock.” And he is inviting you — do I understand this right, Paul? He is inviting you to visit the appointee website. It I think now it will be divided into two parts, depending on the outcome of the election. This is a great project Paul is working on.

Tom, can you explain to us what we should make of this crisis that we face as a country?

Thomas E. Mann: No. I just can’t figure out what the interest is here, E.J. Listen, this is a once in a century cluster of events that pose an extraordinary challenge to our political class and to our political leaders. There is today I believe enormous pressure on George Bush and Al Gore and on the leaders of both parties in Congress to figure out a way to manage a very, very difficult situation that has the potential to do serious damage to the legitimacy of our constitutional system. I think there are some precedents to follow. There are some alternatives involved here. But what our leaders say and do over the next hours and days will be exceedingly important. What we have heard thus far has been muted, better muted than hyperbolic but much more needs to be said.

We have this, first of all, very unusual delay in the outcome. All of us were put through an emotional roller coaster last night. I was sitting on a PBS set for five hours. And I sort of — Florida in and out and up and down. It was really an extraordinary situation. The bottom line is we have sort of two immediate problems. And I will argue that one of the problems is not a problem but the second one is and that one has to think about dealing with.

The first “problem” is now the strong possibility that the winner of plurality of the popular vote will not be the winner of the electoral vote. That is if Florida stays in the Bush column, Bush will win a majority in the electoral vote and he will be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 votes behind Gore in the national popular vote. Now, in my mind, that is not a particularly big deal. We have a constitutional system. The rules of the game call for a majority in the electoral college. The candidates competed to win a majority in the electoral college, not a majority of the popular vote. It seems to me you don’t change the rules in a midstream. We have faced this situation before in our history. While I don’t doubt that this result will lead to pressure to change the way in which we elect presidents, and I think the odds are pretty sure that that will happen, it should not go to the legitimacy of the outcome of this election. That is my strongly-held view. Do not put me down as neutral on this question.

But the second issue really goes to the results in Florida. First of all, the bizarre calling of the election early and withdrawing and then awarding it to Bush and then withdrawing that as we sort of march down. Most of the absentee ballots have been counted. Some additional ones are coming from overseas. There is a recount underway now that is sort of a speedy recount that will end late tomorrow. But if there is anything that emerges in that, one can have a more elaborate recount process that would take more like 10 days instead of 48 hours.

Maybe that part will all work out. It will confirm the Bush lead, which is now about 1,600 votes of about five or six million that were cast. And when the absentees come in, it may be keeps it the same or enlarges it. And things will work out fine.

There is one problem, however, and it is a consequence a provision of our Constitution that gives to the states the power to set the time, manner, and place of elections. We have a decentralized system of administering elections. And local county officials have enormous prerogative in designing ballots and setting up ballot forms. Well, it turned out in Palm Beach County, a rather unusual procedure was used in which, by all accounts, many voters were confused with the punch card. And it stretched apparently laterally across two pages. And where they thought, or it is alleged where they thought they were voting for Al Gore, they in fact punched for Patrick Buchanan.

Bill Gale, an economist here at Brookings, has just sort of handed me an analysis done by an economist down in Florida which is in effect the predicted vote for Pat Buchanan versus the actual. This is predicted. This is actual. Here are sort of all of the results of every county. Here is Palm Beach County. It is completely off the charts, leading to an estimate here of probably somewhere in excess of 2,200 votes intended to be cast for Al Gore that were cast Patrick Buchanan.

If nothing else changes, we will then have a situation where, I assume this information will become widespread and commonplace, and if it is legitimate, assuming it isn’t overturned by other results coming in and so on, the possibility exists that we will all know that Al Gore in fact won Florida but George Bush will be declared the winner of Florida. On the basis of that, he will become the president of the United States.

Unidentified: Is this is a great country or what? This is better than Hollywood.

T. Mann: That is a rather extraordinary situation. Mind you, it is not a question of electoral fraud as we had in 1960, charges of fraud in Illinois and Texas. I think at that time, Richard Nixon did an honorable thing and he basically conceded the election, even though there will questions raised about the legitimacy of the count in Illinois and in Texas, two states that had they gone Republican would have made Richard Nixon president of the United States.

It may well be that at some point, Al Gore is going to have to suck it up and concede this election to George W. Bush even though he and many other people believe, and they would be justified in believing that in fact he won the state of Florida.

Now, what can be done about it? Well, it turns out not very much. There is no way of tracing the individual votes because we separate that to prevent vote buying and preserve the anonymity of the ballot. So you have to use this ecological information to infer what happened at the individual level. That wouldn’t hold up very well, I suspect in a legal case. Although, you know, Bob and others can offer more on that.

Now, another thing you could do other than simply just accepting it is the state of Florida, by the authority of federal statute could decide to hold another procedure to appoint the electors of Florida. There is a statute, a federal statute that has never been used for such a situation of presidential elections, although it has been elsewhere, in which — and I will read you: “Whenever any state has held an election for the purpose of choosing electors and has failed to make a choice on the day prescribed by law, the electors may be appointed on a subsequent day in such a manner as the legislature of such state may direct.” That is Title 3, Section 2 of the U.S. Code.

Now think about it a minute. We have a Republican legislature. We have a Republican governor. We have an extraordinary situation. The odds of us having a new election in Florida over the next couple of weeks are not strong. And, therefore, my guess is we are going to have to have some kind of negotiated settlement to this. It is not going to be clean. And my own view is this is a serious enough matter for all of us, and especially our political leaders, George Bush, Al Gore, Dennis Hastert, Dick Gephardt, Trent Lott, Tom Daschle, to begin some discussions. Because if this is allowed to fester, if there is a dispute, think back to the disputed Indiana House seat of the 1980’s in which Democrats in the end seated a candidate, the Democratic candidate who was not certified by the local officials, it introduced an era of bitter bipartisanship that remains with us today.

I think we need some kind of political solution. I am thinking grand coalition. I am thinking it is time for Republicans in Congress not to go on the morning talk shows and announce that they now have a mandate to move forward aggressively with all of the elements of the Republican platform but instead begin thinking of how in fact with the country so evenly divided with an election disputed, with how you put together a government that has any plausible basis for operating over the next four years.

Thanks, E.J.

E.J. Dionne: Tom, thank you very, very much for that. And I want to say by the way is Bill Gale here? Bill, at some point, I would love you to comment on it. I also want to make clear we are going to have the audience come in fairly quickly. I want to turn to Richard but I wanted to ask Tom a question. My solution, by the way, is President Gush or Bore —


— part of the grand coalition will be to name Richard the Secretary of State and Richard Holbrooke and Colin Powell will just have to live with it. But we will get to that in a moment.

I had, I must say, at about 4:15 this morning a battlefield conversion to the idea of popularly electing the president of the United States. And it was not because of my political preference but rather because of the mischief that this system allows, given that we are electing a national office with rules created in the states where you can have very bizarre, narrow, arcane issues, like the Buchanan vote, determine the fate of the whole country. And lots of people will have questions about the legitimacy. If this election were the other way around and Gore had won the electoral college, a lot of Republicans would say, even if they accepted the election, this doesn’t seem fair. What is the state of your thoughts on this because I know you are an institutionalist on these questions?

T. Mann: The electoral college itself is obviously an anachronism. It has evolved to serve a purpose never intended by the Framers but it in the main has been a useful purpose. It has over time magnified the results of the popular vote and, therefore, provided an earlier and more decisive outcome. And, therefore, more sort of legitimacy to the candidates elected. It has been a counter-force to the nationalization of media campaigns. It has forced candidates to travel around to parts of the country that would make no sense in the future. It has empowered groups that might not get a hearing in a mass plebiscite but, who because of their strategic location can competitive states, get a hearing. There are many reasons for it. But, alas, the times has changed. We live in a world in which small “d” democratic values and forces tend to overwhelm institutional checks and safeties that we set up to ameliorate some of the excesses of democracy.

So, therefore, I am growing and grudgingly more sympathetic to it. But, E.J., it is not a simple system because it will fuel the creation of more minor parties. And the question then is what constitutes a legitimate popular vote election of a president. Will a plurality do? How big a plurality? Forty-five percent, forty, thirty-five? Are you going to have a run off? Well, what kind of strategic calculations and, frankly, paradox of voting problems enter into the situation then? Well, maybe we have to adopt a preferential voting system. It raises very complex questions. It is not a simple matter.

E.J. Dionne: Thank you, Tom. I want to ask Richard and then Bob Litan to talk about how the world is going to look at us. And what effect, if any, will this have? And if you would like to speculate on both administrations, feel free. And I would like to ask Bob the same question about financial markets and what sense do they make for this kind of situation? Richard, the Secretary of State, Richard?

Richard N. Haass: One of the reassuring things, the immediate response was that a lot of the world was somewhat reminiscent of the United States, which is that foreign ministries often work on auto pilot. So reportedly, quite quickly after Governor Bush was announced as the president-elect, all sorts of messages came in from various governments around the world congratulating him on that fact. Which reminds me when I worked in the State Department, you always had these messages prepared so when the prime minister of some country that none of us could find on the map was indeed elected with 99.9 percent of the vote, the perfunctory automatic congratulatory message would go out under the name of the Secretary of State. So this is clearly globalization at work.

How the world will perceive this, I think a lot of it depends upon how it is played out. When America shows itself to the world, whether it is in something like this or the Clinton scandals or the O.J. trial or whatever, our domestic politics are really issue number one in a lot of the rest of the world in a way that is not reciprocated whatsoever. A lot of us have already been asked to appear on foreign radio, foreign television. And every where in the world this is probably story number one, which, again, is not reciprocated.

But I think what we are essentially going to be is looked at. And depending upon how we handle both what Tom called the first problem and the second problem, we will have an impact in how we are perceived. To the extent we handle this with a degree of civility and with real concerns for legality as well as legitimacy, I actually think whenever we do that, no matter how awkward or messy the problem, we show ourselves to have a civic and a political culture that is the envy of the world. And so if we handle this well, I think respect for us goes up.

I think, however, if it is handled badly or perceived to be handled badly, then we stop looking exceptional. And we stop looking as a country that has evolved a form of democracy that is qualitatively different, and I would say qualitatively better. So there is an opportunity here, as messy and as in some way ways problematic as this is, there is an opportunity to show that we have the capacity to handle this sort of political challenge in ways that no other society would be up to. And if that happens, then we enhance respect for the United States.

E.J. Dionne: Thank you. Bob, on the economic side?

Robert E. Litan: Well, I prepared something to say but obviously it is irrelevant….

Well, there is a short-run impact, which Tom just informed me the NASDAQ is down by 3 percent or something like that. I think that as long as this instability matters or exists, the markets will be unsettled. But I think for the sake of answering your question, I am going to assume that we resolve this somehow legitimately and that it will be perceived legitimately.

And then the question that I have been getting from reporters, of course, is can anyone — and they are presuming that Governor Bush wins — can Bush govern the country given a four vote margin in the House right now. In the Senate, I am told that we are at 51-49 right now, Republicans. But Gorton’s election now or re-election is in doubt. If he loses, it is 50-50. Strom Thurmond is sick and Jesse Helms’ health is not great. So you don’t know, you could start off with a Republican Senate and then go to a Democratic Senate. But, in any event, you could even have 50-50 with the Vice President living up on Capitol Hill literally because he would required to be a tie-breaker all the time.

So to make a long story short, we are as evenly balanced as you can get. So can you govern and can Bush put through any part of his agenda. And I will just give you a couple of random thoughts. Number one, one would think that given the crisis that there would be a tendency to reach out, bipartisanship, and both sides would compromise so that Bush could get some part of his plan and the Democrats get some of theirs.

And what would make this a lot easier to happen is there will be a new CBO budget forecast that all of you should watch for in January. And for the last number of years, CBO has constantly revised upward its projection of surplus. So going into the election, the surplus over the next 10 years was roughly $2 trillion. I think it is — despite the fact that Congress is spending more money this year than was originally projected. It is conceivable that despite that, the projected growth rate of GDP in the next 10 years could be raised enough in the next CBO forecast so that the surplus would be even larger than what we had during the campaign. Money makes the world go around. And if, in fact, there is more money, there is room for a deal where Republicans get some of theirs, Democrats get some of theirs and you could have a happy scenario work out.

Now, the flip side of this, of course, is if that does not materialize, we are stuck with a surplus of $2 trillion or it is less and there is a lot more to fight over. You may residual bitterness growing out of whatever resolution the crisis we have. And both parties could be taking the calculation, what is in our interest to maximize our prospects two years from now because we are going to have mid-term elections in two years. And if people think today about how it is going to affect things two years from now, that can affect their calculations very differently. They have to make a choice between one school of thought, which says it is good to get a lot stuff done because that is the best way to get re-elected versus let’s fight over this, stick to our principles and then blame the other guys for the gridlock. And, frankly, I think there will be advocates of both views in both parties. And I can’t tell you right now which will prevail.

But I will conclude by saying that a higher surplus will be good news in a sense of easing this crisis.

And the one final thing I will point out. There is a huge wild card in all of this that we can’t predict and that relates to external events that influence the economy. And if there are two sort of wild cards out there that you worry about, one is the Middle East and oil. And, two, either related to that or independent would be another major stock market correction downward. Either of which could make some of those revenues evaporate rather quickly and then we are into recession and we are into an ugly situation.

So I would say those are the uncertainties you worry about, and I will quit there because it is impossible to be any more definite than that.

E.J. Dionne: That was great. Thank you very much. By the way, Bill Gale, the piece of scholarship — we used to have instant analysis, now we have it thanks to the net, instant scholarship will be passed around the room at some point. And I am going to ask Bill to tell us a little bit about it. Do we have Xeroxes of that?

William G. Gale: We have 40 percent of the copies reporting.

E.J. Dionne: I don’t know if you heard that. He said, “We have 40 percent of the copies reporting.” So I would like Bill at some point to get in on that. I would like to turn to Bel. And my friend, David Brooks, at The Weekly Standard said that if you look at these election results, what you see is that the country is tied. It is tied in virtually every respect. The Senate is maybe literally tied. Senator Breaux, and I am very loosely paraphrasing, suggested that every Senator hire bodyguards and a food taster given the nature of the control in the Senate.

E.J. Dionne: At least my reading of the exit polling yesterday is the country itself is in kind of a moderate mood, that you have polarization with a country in a moderate mood. And if George Bush prevails, it is because a lot of people who agree with Al Gore’s policies voted for George Bush either because of Al Gore or Bill Clinton. What is this going to do to social policy? How do you make social policy in a situation where you have sort of simultaneously polarization and some desire for something other than polarization? I only ask you the easy questions.

Isabel V. Sawhill: Well, I think that I sort of have thought about is their a good news that can come out of this difficult situation everybody has just described. And I sort of presume that probably Bush is going to win but that we are going have a margin thin Republican majority in the House and the Senate. And as Bob Litan has pointed out, it could even be a tie in the Senate. But let’s assume that is where we end up and then let me try to address what I think a relatively story about it might look like.

I think that clearly because of what you just said and because of what all the exit polls show and so forth, there is no mandate here for truly conservative government, what the right-wing of the Republican Party, particularly in the Congress, might have wanted to see happen. So coming out of this, we can either have gridlock or we can have bipartisanship. We can have an attempt to find some kind of a middle ground in policy-making.

And the reasons why I am somewhat optimistic about the fact that we might be able to find that is, first of all, Bush talked incessantly about the need to turn down the rhetoric, to stop the bickering and the divisions in Washington. And it is pretty clear that a lot of people voted for him I think because of that message. They liked that message. He also has a record that arguably reached out to the other party in Texas. And I think, finally, during the campaign distanced himself quite a bit from the Republicans in the Congress.

Second reason I am a little bit optimistic is because I think there is a lot of rancor in the Congress right now partly because of President Clinton and how he is viewed up there. Clearly, many members of his own party, who don’t quite trust him, and a lot of Republicans who, to put it mildly, just actively dislike him.

Now, I think there is an interesting question here about whether Hillary Clinton in the Senate keeps that a little bit alive or whether somehow or another once Bill Clinton is gone, he is really gone and some of that rancor goes away.

I have to say as a footnote or an aside here, I am interested that nobody in the press, at least that I have seen, has mentioned the fact that we are moving to family dynasties in presidential politics. We went Bush, Clinton. Now, we will probably have Bush again and then maybe we will have Clinton, the other Clinton in 2004 or 2008. And that is the threat, by the way to go back to what Bob said, that the Republicans, if they do have a majority and they have both the White House and the Congress have to worry about, who might come in in 2004 the way the Republicans took over in 1994 after the Clinton Administration turned left, and too far left probably in retrospect.

Third reason that I am somewhat optimistic is because Bush campaigned essentially on Democratic issues. And they were the social policy questions, health care, education, social security. So, again, this election I think was no endorsement of a conservative agenda. Put a little differently, I think the conservative revolution that many associate with Ronald Reagan having come into power, in both in ideologically and an intellectual sense, has lost a lot of its earlier energy. Some of that energy I think disappeared because Clinton has been a New Democrat. Some of it has disappeared because we have had prosperity, some of it because all the social indicators are moving in the right direction, crime is down, teen pregnancy is down. Things really all seem to be getting better. And, finally, if you take out the big entitlement programs, government is a lot smaller and leaner than it used to be.

And, finally, I agree with what Bob Litan said about dollars do make the world go around and there is some money to meet everybody’s objectives here. And so that is something as well.

Now, if I have time, I would like to just say a few words, somewhat very speculative and very provocative about what this new coalition agenda might look like, this more bipartisan agenda. Think about the two big issues that Governor Bush has said he would address. One is this big across-the-board tax cut. The second is social security.

The exit polls show that only a quarter of the public was enthusiastic about the across-the-board tax cut, whereas 57 percent of them were in favor of some privatization of social security. So think about the following scenario. The Bush Administration says we are going to reduce the payroll tax by two percentage points. We are going to have a true middle-class tax cut because payroll taxes are much larger than income taxes for most middle income families. We are going to require that you put that money instead into some kind of a private savings account. But basically we are returning the money to you. It is and can be viewed as a tax cut. We are going to pay for the $1 trillion hole that that creates in the social security system by scaling back in a major way the original across-the-board tax cut. So it is a nice sort of joining of a more conservative and a more moderate to liberal agenda.

Another example, education. Bush’s proposal here is to provide flexible funding, a block grant funding of most or all federal education dollars to the states. The Democrats and liberals don’t like it. They are afraid that the states might use it in the wrong way or give it to the wrong school districts. Suppose that you go along with the idea that block grant funding of education makes quite a lot of sense. We did it in welfare. It seems to be working reasonably well in welfare, maybe we should trust the states a little bit more. But maybe we have a hooker that says in return for that, we don’t try to do anything about school vouchers, even in the limited way that Bush talked about it in the campaign in both Michigan and California. That was resoundingly defeated.

And, secondly, we have a little bit of a condition, or maybe more than a little bit of a condition, on the federal money going to the states that says the amount you get is going to be conditioned not only on how well your schools perform, based on annual testing, but, secondly, on how equitable your school financing situation is.



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