Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

The final question at a talk on civil discourse by James A. Baker
at the Wilson Center on Monday, October 23, 2012

raised the specter of another razor-thin election reminiscent of 2000.  A subsequent headline in the Washington Post suggested that the 2012
presidential election is so close that the Electoral College could split evenly
between Obama and Romney.  Later, the
revised headline
which more accurately describes the story was that the popular
vote and the Electoral College vote could be at odds but this time with Obama
winning the Electoral College and Romney the popular vote.

Baker, of course, was a controversial figure in the 2000 presidential
elections.  He was the lawyer who led the
Republican legal challenge to the Democratic call for a recount of the vote in
several Florida
counties.  The recount – had the Supreme
Court allowed it to proceed – might well have resulted in a changed Electoral
College result that not only would have reflected the popular vote but also changed
the political and economic complexion of this country and its role in and
perception of it in the world.

In short,
without Bush 43rd’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq in and of itself, a costly and difficult
war would have been avoided and the US would have remained a largely
benevolent power in the minds of most foreigners.     

In retrospect, the Democratic Party’s mistakes that fateful night
were two:  1) to call for only a selective
county recount, and, 2) in my estimation, appoint Warren Christopher to lead
its legal challenge.  I never thought Christopher
was a strong Secretary of State whereas Baker was and I thought even at the
time that the Democrats would have done far better to appoint a far more aggressive
lawyer to lead their legal challenge in 2000.   

Back to 2000

I spent elections night 2000 on the 93rd floor of
World Trade Center Tower Two – a place that sadly no longer exists – as New
Mexico State Manager for Voter News Service, a national vote reporting and
predictions organization that sadly also no longer exists.  At the time, New Mexico
was both a swing and a Bell
Weather State.
I also happened to work in the same room as the Florida State Manager.

This year New
Mexico is solid blue so how our voters vote doesn’t
really matter to the campaigns this year except for a fight over a Senate seat
which – if the US Chamber of Commerce has its way – would turn from blue to red.  But even with all the Chamber money thrown
in, the polls continue to show Democratic Congressman Martin Heinrich well
ahead – thus far, at least.  Occasionally
common sense does trump money even in the craziness of American politics. 

In 2000, New
Mexico was so closely divided in the presidential
polls that every one of our votes mattered. 
It took about a month for all the New
Mexico votes to be counted before the state was narrowly
declared Blue. Our major culprit was the then incompetent Republican Bernalillo
County Clerk (the state’s largest county) famous for declaring that she never
finished the count. This time she ultimately had to – despite a lost ballot box
locked in some out of the way closet, a wayward box that mysteriously turned up
about a month later when, of course, it no longer mattered.  

Due to their blatant incompetency both she and
her elections manager were gone by elections 2002 and we’ve elected Democratic
County Clerks ever since. By the time the missing ballots were found, however,
I had been back in New Mexico for about a
month and the real fight over the nation’s future had remained centered on Florida.

I don’t blame Baker for the outcome – he did his job all too
well – but I do blame Florida’s
then Secretary of State. One of the many problems with US elections is that
they are run by politically partisan state and county officials who themselves
have a stake in the outcome.  Nevertheless,
most of all I blame the US Supreme Court, then as now controlled by judges
appointed by Republican presidents, which never, repeat, never should have even
agreed to hear the case. 

Unfortunately, the highest Court is still
controlled – 5 to 4 – by the Republicans but let’s hope that if the elections balance
on a knife’s edge yet again, that the justices exhibit better judgment this
time around and stay out.  I’m skeptical,
however, that the once burned, twice shy rule will play out.   The high court five already caused enough
havoc earlier this year by upholding “Citizens United” (a 5-4 decision) which
has resulted in the flooding of the campaigns with SUPERPAC money largely favoring
the Republicans. More than 80% of these funds it turns out, come from fewer
than 200 of America’s richest – according, at least, to a study cited in the October

As the Economist also
pointed out in another article in the magazine’s same special section that this
approach to politics is just a step away from “The Gilded Age,” a time near the
end of the nineteenth century when corporate America blatantly bought
politicians outright before a depression brought on by their profligacy ushered
in a populist reaction that swung the pendulum in the opposite direction.  This depression hit my ancestors so hard that
my grandmother was denied her chance to study at Radcliffe College
or ever get beyond a high school education because the family could no longer
afford it.  The depression of the 1930s –
following the “Roaring Twenties” – another Republican “gilded age” – denied my
mother-in-law of a college education she too desperately wanted and deserved
for the same reason.            

Back on the 93rd floor, however, VNS called Florida for Al Gore
because, in fact, that’s what the VNS predictions formula indicated. Exit
polling, which was part of the formula, in and of itself is notoriously
accurate (far more than pre-elections polls). 
The VNS call came late in the evening: and, to repeat, the figures being
reported from Florida
substantiated it.  The VNS formula which
factored in a number of indicators including select precinct reporting too may
not have been perfect – but, in reality it was likely better than what we have
now since VNS was destroyed by the major US news media that had funded it for
20 or more years and gave AP sole control of the process thereafter (which
decided it didn’t need precinct reporting or a separate check on its own county

Here’s today’s problem: 
The quagmire in Florida could repeat itself – the Republicans have been
working hard to make it so – through that party’s perennial insistence upon
denying poorer voters the franchise – at least those more likely to vote for the
Democrats despite the fact that study after study has shown that electoral
fraud perpetrated by ineligible voters is almost nonexistent.

Yet, putting the Voter I.D. issue aside, in reality, blatant
electoral fraud remains a real problem with the Republican side of the aisle because –
among other reasons – the wealthiest of the party faithful control crucial electronic voting
machines (please note, a Romney son owns the company that owns the voting
machines used in crucial swing state Ohio. This alone makes me very nervous
because those machines can and have been manipulated in the past – including and especially in Ohio.

This is another major flaw in the American electoral process
needing correction.  It seems to me that
the counting of ballots should be a function reserved for the government with trained observer oversight and not contracted
out to any company regardless of the owners’ political persuasion. 

Elections can have consequences. Think 2000

9/11 would most likely still have happened although it’s
also possible a Democratic administration might have been more concerned than
the Bush White House was that several Arab students at commercial US flight
schools were learning to take off but not land and taken more seriously intelligence
reports of Al Qaeda’s plans.

Gore’s advisors would have been better that Bush’s tone deaf ones will remain a
matter of conjecture but regardless, I don’t think a Gore administration would
have ever contemplated the ill-fated and costly invasion of Iraq.  That was a neocon plot from start to finish
and Bush’s administration was infiltrated with these people whereas the
Democrats were not.  Fast forward and
beware . . . these same supposed foreign affairs gurus are now the core of
Romney’s foreign affairs advisory team.

however, is a different story.  It is
quite likely that had 9/11 happened, a Gore administration would have gone
after the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan
with the same vengeance.                                   

The Iraq war, however, was simply part and parcel of the fiscally
irresponsible policies that nearly drove this country off the economic cliff in
2007 and into the worst recession since the Great One in 1929, a mistaken
policy that we still need to pay for – or should be paying for except that the right
wing Republicans who control Congress are allergic to compromise, government regulation
of businesses “too large to fail” or tax increases on the wealthy yet insist
upon retaining inordinately high funding for the largest military establishment
in the world while starving the home front. 
This, of course, keeps defense contractors happy as well as some less well
off young Americans employed – by the military – and far away from these shores
where, if home, would be clamoring for non-existent jobs because of the after
effects of Bush 43rd administration’s induced recession.

This despite the dying breed of moderate Republicans like Baker who argue that
everything should be on the table including reduced defense spending and closure
of tax dodging loop-holes for the country’s wealthiest.

“The Game Change”

I recently watched “The Game Change,” a 2012 HBO film about
the ill-fated choice of Sarah Palin for Vice President of the United States
in 2008.  One campaign failing in
particular became clear in the movie: 
Governor Palin should never, repeat, never have survived day one of that
campaign’s vetting process.  Her abysmal substantive
knowledge combined with the fact that she was the seemingly proud mother of a 15 year old
pregnant unmarried daughter should have been enough warning for the McCain’s vetters
to move on.

But I have to applaud McCain for admonishing an
over-zealous fan at a campaign rally that Obama was also an honorable man
and, in essence, thereby refuting a lie that had been assiduously circulated
among Republican faithful by its underground Rovian disinformation machine.

I have not, however, seen anything of the sort coming from
Mr. Romney in this election who has – from day one – taken the low road vis-à-vis
his opponents.  The lies and smears that have
come from the Right are nothing short of the worst form of cheap political
propaganda.  Are these distortions being
used to encourage the base to get to the polls or are they designed to sway
that minute number of undecided voters? Likely
both.  Romney’s inordinate ability to
fabricate as well as pontificate those fabrications is a part of all this – his
“Gish Gallop” technique of the first debate is just the most blatant example.

A reality check needed?

No, Republicans, you are wrong:  the Fact Checkers have demonstrated time
after time – like it or not – that Obama has far greater command of the facts –
not to mention the issues – than his opponent. 
Hello out there. . . Are you listening?

Mr. Romney – please, at least, get some of those facts right
for a change.  If it’s the problem of incompetent
advisors – hire some who will help you get the story straight even at this
late hour – or are those Americans who intend to vote for you so out of touch and
hate Obama so much that it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it
with conviction? 

Or maybe it’s just plain too late.  Why should debate moderators have to correct
your worst gibberish? What’s that I heard about your claiming this week that a jeep
factory in Ohio was moving to China and thereby
putting thousands of American workers on the dole?  Don’t think so – the factory’s doing just
fine, it’s apparently hiring 7,000 additional workers in the Buckeye State (that’s
an “h” not and “f” word) and also expanding operations in China.  Can’t your script writers read English?

Democrats, however, need to be very wary.  This election is a nail-biter. There’s too
much at stake to let victory slip-by. And this means not just ferrying
supporters to the polls but also preparing for a strong, aggressive and
tenacious legal defense team ready to swing into action election night.   This election will make a difference.