If a presidential election indicates the health of the body politic, America’s civic condition may be hovering just this side of the intensive-care ward. Even by the low standard we’ve come to expect from the quadrennial circus, the 2000 contest oozed with verbal immorality and bad faith. Few Dissent readers will need convincing about Republican offenses. George W. Bush purred about “compassion” while he planned to block an increase in the minimum wage, cut funds for protecting the environment, and spend billions to “defend” the nation with a technology that doesn’t work against a threat of foreign missiles that doesn’t exist.
His clumsy opponent didn’t fare much better. Al Gore tried to “go populist” against companies from which he and Bill Clinton had earlier solicited millions of dollars in contributions, then essentially retreated to the fiscal conservatism and free-market dogma that were always closer to his heart. He gained an edge in the popular vote because of the persistent cultural divide between crowded oceanside metropolises (where he scored a landslide) and the rest of the country on such matters as abortion, gun control, and whether a president who lies in public about his sex life should stay in office. According to exit polls, all the squabbles about plans to “save” Social Security, improve education, and subsidize pharmaceuticals for seniors blurred rather than sharpened the differences between Gore and Bush on these issues. “Watching the two candidates speak about their rival plans,” wrote David Brooks (the nation’s wittiest, least predictable conservative journalist), “was like watching an ad war between cellular phone rate plans: My plan gives you more choices! My plan gives you more minutes! My plan gives you free prescription drugs on weekends and holidays!”
The real scandal of the 2000 race was a joint sin of omission. Neither Gore nor Bush made more than a passing reference to problems of great significance and some urgency: the rising number of Americans without health insurance, the widening economic gap between people who write big campaign checks and those who clean their houses and wait on their tables, the billions of dollars still being spent on nuclear weapons, the twenty-five million Africans with HIV, or the encroaching crisis of global warming (despite Gore’s having written a book about it). Ralph Nader, to his credit, at least protested the domestic outrages. But his fury at Gore and Clinton lured him into the unethical trap inhabited by radicals who prefer the rule of a principled enemy to that of a capricious ally. The ninety-three thousand Floridians who voted Green helped bring on five weeks of ruthless legal combat, in which each side sanctimoniously assured us that its loophole-hunting was in the service of democracy while the opposition was out to thwart the popular will. At last, our famously nonpartisan Supreme Court chose a winner...
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