Lessons Learned From Election 2000

Lessons Learned From Election 2000

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

All politics is local, BC's own "Tip" O'Neill famously said, and the late House Speaker's dictum has been borne out as the closest presidential election in modern history has hinged on county ballot recounts in Florida.

With the nation and the world, the Boston College community has watched the unfolding election drama with rapt attention. This past week, as the controversy over Florida and its make-or-break 25 electoral votes continued, BC scholars across the disciplines were asked their observations on an election for the books.

Asst. Prof. Christopher McDonough (Classical Studies) saw in the election deadlock the stuff of Greek drama.

"Here's the irony," he said. "One of them will have to step down, and in doing so, will appear statesmanlike and so gain in stature, while the other will rule without mandate, thus losing whatever status he has. One becomes a profile in courage, the other president."

Every four years since 1968, Senior Vice President James McIntyre has gathered a group of former BC students at his Malden home to watch the presidential election returns. Their ranks include a federal judge, a history professor, several lawyers and a Jesuit priest.

This year, they hung in till 2 a.m. "We didn't stay up all night," said McIntyre. "We're older and saner now."

Veteran election-watcher McIntyre said he's never seen a contest like the current cliffhanger.

"It's absolutely unique," he said. "There's been nothing like this in the history of the country. Think about it: 100 million people voting, and it comes down to this narrow margin. It's astounding.

"It's a wonderful thing to witness for young people who wonder if their vote matters. It demonstrates every single vote is important."

Assoc. Prof. Thomas Hibbs (Philosophy) took a gloomy view of the proceedings. "Given the close vote in so many states and the continuing recounts in Florida, we are now in a position where, no matter who is ultimately declared to be president, serious doubts will cast a pall over the outcome," he said.

"If there were such irregularities in a few Florida counties and if each recount in that state comes up with a different number, what are we to think was occurring in the rest of Florida, let alone the rest of the nation? Add to this the fact that Congress is now nearly split down the middle, and we are in for interesting times in politics over the next few years. But not nearly as interesting as they ought to be.

"The close presidential vote and the congressional split have been described either as a sign that Americans want a rough parity of competing visions - an absurd position that assumes that each American cast half a vote for each side - or as a sign that we are deeply divided - a view that ignores the large percentage of voters, eagerly courted by both candidates during the presidential debates, who were undecided and who generally do not like public wrangling and tend to make political judgments on superficial grounds like personality.

"The influence of the undecided, whom the press has elevated to near celebrity status, will prohibit politicians from engaging in serious, extended public disagreement about issues, while rancor and division continue to roil just beneath the surface," said Hibbs.

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science) said much depends on the candidates - not the courts - resolving the political impasse in Florida by putting an end to divisive bickering.

"At some level it looks like a crisis of legitimacy, but at another level, it's a real opportunity," said Wolfe. "What has to be done is clear," he said. "The next president will have to reach out to the other group. I think most Americans have said we can't go beyond this - this has to be the end of the era of extreme partisanship."

University Historian Thomas O'Connor drew parallels to two other closely contested presidential races in American history. The 1824 contest saw General Andrew Jackson win the popular vote in a four-way race, he said, but lose the presidency to John Quincy Adams after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Critics decried a "Corrupt Bargain" between Adams and a rival candidate, House Speaker Henry Clay, who was named secretary of state, a post then seen as a steppingstone to the presidency.

"Jackson got nothing," O'Connor said.

The 1876 election, conducted in the tense decade following the Civil War, also failed to produce a winner in the Electoral College, and saw Democrat Samuel Tilden win the popular vote but ultimately lose to Republican Rutherford Hayes in a vote of a GOP-majority congressional panel. Florida also played a pivotal role in that election.

"Things were so bad then there was talk of violence," said O'Connor, with President Ulysses S. Grant placing the capital on a war footing.

"The point of taking the historical view," said O'Connor, "is that it reinforces the idea: 'Let's not get too excited, because it's happened before.'"


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