Fifteen Years after The Recount: A look back on President Al Gore’s administration – #LeadersMatter

Fifteen Years after The Recount: A look back on President Al Gore’s administration – #LeadersMatter

Daily Maverick editor challenged J. BROOKS SPECTOR to speculate on what things might have looked like if the US Supreme Court had ruled in favour of a full Florida recount in the contested election of 2000, instead of deciding that the disputed vote count in Florida – slightly in George W Bush’s favour – should stand.

From our vantage point, here at the end of 2015, it is fascinating to look back at the American election of 2000, once Al Gore was finally able to declare victory on 15 December, following the full recount of the contested results from Florida, as dictated by that narrow Supreme Court decision. How would things have turned out if former Texas Governor, George W Bush, had been declared the victor instead, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision? What can we learn from this?

Historians – and most especially biographers, perhaps – divide into opposing camps about the nature of historical causality. There is, of course, the “great-man theory”, as in the old chant, “for want of a nail the horse was lost; for want of the man, the battle was lost….” And then there is the school of argument, as with economist John Maynard Keynes, that the decisions of leaders are, whether they acknowledge it or not, in thrall to the ideas of some long-dead economist. And there is the strong Marxist approach, which argues that there are great hidden mechanisms and processes that govern the lives and circumstances of us all, essentially, regardless of who is notionally in charge of things. This writer believes all of these views have a place, but sees the difference in two men – George W Bush and Al Gore – as a particularly good test case of this question. So, here goes.

Gideon Rose, editor of the journal, Foreign Affairs, has written, in a recent article in his magazine, in speaking of a Bush presidency, “It was inevitable that the attacks [of 9/11] would make the fight against radical jihadists the top priority of American policy. And given the complexities involved, it was inevitable that this fight would last a long time and present many controversial policy choices. What was not inevitable was that the attacks would also produce a major shift in the United States’ approach to the world, the launching of a costly war in an unrelated country, and an enduring state of siege. Those things happened because Washington lost its head.

“Bush administration officials could have responded to the attacks with chagrin and self-recrimination, conceding (at least tacitly) that their initial national security priorities had been incorrect. If they had done this, they would still have undertaken a military campaign against al Qaeda and its unrepentant Afghan hosts, strengthened global counterterrorist operations and intelligence gathering, and paid more attention to homeland security…. Instead, the administration lashed out” and incorporated Iraq fully into a foreign policy framework designed to deal with straightforward acts of terrorism in a new approach, in which George Bush could say was definitive effort to “rid the world of evil.”

An Al Gore presidency would, naturally, have responded forcefully to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Anything else would have destroyed his presidency, before it was barely out of its initial stages. But there is little evidence that Al Gore had advocated the kind of Manichean international profile of pure goodness, and pure evil, paired with an easy slide down that dangerous slippery slope that would have led to dispatching hundreds of thousands of military personnel – and at great national cost – for two seemingly never-ending wars that, ultimately, unleashed the kinds of forces that have given rise to ISIL, and today’s chaos. And just incidentally, absent a second Iraqi war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation – and the continuing popularity of his “third way” for new Labour – might well have remained secure.

In fact, speaking in late September 2002, Al Gore told his audience in San Francisco, “The doctrine of pre-emption is based on the idea that in the era of proliferating WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] and against the background of a sophisticated terrorist threat, the United States cannot wait for proof of a fully established mortal threat, but should rather act at any point to cut that short.”

The problem with pre-emption is that in the first instance it is not needed in order to give the United States the means to act in its own defence against terrorism in general or Iraq in particular. But that is a relatively minor issue compared to the longer-term consequences that can be foreseen for this doctrine. To begin with, the doctrine is presented in open-ended terms, which means that if Iraq is the first point of application, it is not necessarily the last. In fact, the very logic of the concept suggests a string of military engagements against a succession of sovereign states: Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran, etc, wherever the combination exists of an interest in weapons of mass destruction, together with an on-going role as host to, or participant in terrorist operations.”

Fortunately, Al Gore might well have secured the experienced hand of General Colin Powell as his secretary of state, as part of Gore’s effort to build some cross-party support for his own presidential administration.

In pre-2000 speeches, while Al Gore had generally spoken in the ritualised American political language of support for Israel, there is good reason to believe that an Al Gore presidency would have put much more emphasis on finding comprehensive terms for a larger Mideast regional settlement (including pressure on Israel to make crucial concessions on its West Bank settlements), in order to take the region out of its stalemate. He had, after all, told a potentially hostile audience, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in early 2000, “Forging the right kind of relationship with the Islamic world is a major challenge for the United States and Israel in the coming years. We know it will not be easy, but we will do it. And in the process, we will advance and strengthen peace in the Middle East and the security of Israel.”

Pursuant to that idea, the logical approach in a Gore presidency would have been asking his Vice President, Joe Lieberman (an observant Orthodox Jew), to be point person in a thoroughly exasperating task of pursuing Gore presidency’s version of a “Nixon goes to China” with a precedent-setting effort to break the Mideast deadlock. In a Gore presidency, while unlikely a fully comprehensive settlement would have been achieved (Iran and Iraq almost certainly would have remained outside the tent rather than joining inside it), nevertheless the Israelis would surely not have received the hands-off, laissez faire approach from the US over growing West Bank settlements that has, in the end, greatly complicated peace efforts in the past decade-and-a-half.

In recent years, now that his political career has come to an end, Al Gore has become nearly synonymous with strong advocacy over the dangers of global climate change. Even as vice president, he had been a vocal advocate for the Kyoto Protocol, the Convention on Climate Change. As a member of the Clinton Administration, however, he had ultimately advised the president not to send the protocol to the Senate for ratification, until leading developing nations had declared their support for it as well,

However, as a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress (in both the House and Senate), Al Gore would have had precisely the kind of “bully pulpit” – especially, for example, following hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans – such that he could push for Kyoto’s ratification by both the US and those other nations still hanging back from signing on to it, that had led to the Clinton administration’s failure to push for its passage. Instead of the supine, lackadaisical response from a Bush administration, it seems more likely a Gore administration could have used a natural disaster, like Katrina, as proof that there was a pressing need to make serious global efforts to cope with climate change.

A forceful press for the Kyoto Protocol might well have produced a severe Republican backwash in the middle of a Gore presidency, however. And such antagonisms might well have contributed to the Democrats’ loss of its majority in one or the other of the two congressional chambers. It may even have contributed to a Republican presidential victory in 2008.

In government economic policy terms, an Al Gore presidency could well have had a real, positive impact. As a full-scale supporter of the thorough rebuilding America’s infrastructure as well as the construction of the most up-to-date high speed Internet connectivity possible for the entire nation, a Gore administration would have pushed hard for federal budget investments in such areas, as well as tax incentives to the private sector to participate fully in this effort. Expenditures like these might well have cushioned the economy into lessening the baleful impact of the financial collapse of 2008, keeping more people at work, and able to service their home loans. And America’s broadband Internet connectivity and its utilisation might, now, be more like the situation in thoroughly “wired” nations like South Korea, Finland, and Singapore.

And here are a few more thoughts about the effects of a Gore presidency. First of all, George W Bush would have returned to his most enjoyable occupation, serving as senior management with a major league baseball team after losing that controversial 2000 presidential race, rather than leading a nation into an Iraqi quagmire. Taking a guess here, Al Gore would have grown his beard early in his presidency – instead of waiting until his growing involvement with environmental causes, and retirement from politics – thereby triggering a wave of hirsuteness among American men that echoed the way John Kennedy’s eschewing of a hat while he read his inaugural address in 1961 triggered a wave of men who ditched their trilbys and fedoras for generations to come.

One other result might well have occurred as well. Should a Gore presidency have run through 20 January 2009, given the usual reluctance of the American public to reward one political party with five consecutive presidential terms of office, Barack Obama’s presidential ambitions would have been put on hold at least until 2012 – and perhaps even 2016 or later. And that would certainly have had a negative impact on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s own presidential ambitions as well. Instead, a Gore presidency would have led to the emergence of a new generation of Democratic Party activists and politicians instead.

Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate – and, crucially, they serve for life – giving appointments a long, long impact that frequently transcends an individual presidency. As a result, in a Gore presidency, instead of the rightward drift of the court, Al Gore would have undoubtedly appointed justices to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that would have given the court a pronounced liberal tilt. Such a positioning would have virtually guaranteed cases like Citizens United v the Federal Elections Commission would have been invalidated, and the idea that unlimited corporate campaign-related spending was functionally equivalent to free speech. Such a determination would have led to profound limitations on the growth of those superPAC (Political Action Committee) campaign vehicles that have fundamentally skewed – and cheapened – political campaigns in America.

But this has all been a pipe dream. George W Bush did gain the presidency, courtesy of the US Supreme Court judges that were appointed by his father. He did wage war against Iraq over those effectively non-existent weapons of mass destruction, a war that has now lasted for more than a decade, and with tragic results for that unhappy nation and the entire region. He did preside over a financial collapse, the likes of which are only being rolled back, now, in the seventh year of the Obama presidency. And finally, he helped feed a growing sense of unease, distrust, or active dislike of America and its global influence throughout many of the more unstable parts of the globe. Leaders matter. DM

Photo: US President George W. Bush (R) stands with former Vice President Al Gore during a photo op with the 2007 Nobel Prize recipients in the oval office at the White House in Washington DC USA on 26 November 2007. Gore, who was narrowly defeated by Bush in the 2000 Presidential election, won the Nobel Peace prize for his work on global warming. EPA/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL


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