Politics 2000


Issue: "Year in Review 2000," Dec. 30, 2000

New Hampshire: Raising McCain
The political year that would end with an earthquake began with a pretty good jolt. George W. Bush played on a snowmobile and appeared confident. Little did he know the McCain blizzard was coming. On Feb. 1, soon after New Hampshire voters started lining up at the polls at 6 a.m., pundits started to realize Mr. McCain was on the verge of a breakthrough. A maverick Arizona senator who had managed to fly beneath the radar for most of the campaign, Mr. McCain was attracting large numbers of independents-and even Democrats-to cross over and vote for him in the Republican primary. At 8:30 p.m., a tired-looking Mr. Bush took to the airwaves to admit that he'd lost the first, crucial test of his candidacy. He called his 19-point drubbing a "bump in the road" and vowed to fight harder in the coming weeks. For lesser candidates, meanwhile, the New Hampshire results were more like a whack in the head: Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer exited quickly, leaving Bush aides with the hope that conservatives would now rally around the Texas governor, putting a halt to the McCain insurgency. South Carolina: Bush gets his game face
Two weeks after his stunning upset in New Hampshire, John McCain's Straight Talk Express rolled into South Carolina-and ran straight into a brick wall of solid Republican opposition. With another big turnout by Democratic and independent voters, the Arizona senator had hoped to swamp his opponents and grab the mantle as the clear frontrunner in the race. Instead, registered Republicans showed up at the polls in record numbers, doubling the 1996 turnout. Mr. Bush, fighting for his political life, had to work for those votes. He flew to South Carolina immediately after conceding New Hampshire, and he rarely left until the polls closed in the Palmetto State. His carefree campaign style was gone, replaced by a sense of urgency that was palpable. At stop after stop he ran to the lectern, pumped his fist in the air to punctuate his speeches, and yelled himself hoarse despite the microphone standing right in front of him. When the dust settled on election night, the momentum had clearly shifted back to the Texas governor. The very pundits who'd been writing his obituary were now warning that Mr. McCain's Straight Talk Express would run out of gas without a win in Michigan-a crucial test that loomed just three days away. Michigan: Beg, borrow, or steal
Coming off a solid win in South Carolina, Bush aides hoped the Michigan primary would serve as the final nail in their rival's political coffin. Instead, like a horror-film monster that refuses to die, Mr. McCain roared back to life in Michigan, giving the Bush campaign yet another scare. Despite support from the political machine of Gov. John Engler, Mr. Bush fell prey, once again, to hordes of independent and Democratic voters who crossed over to cast their ballots for the more moderate candidate in the GOP primary. At a Bush victory-party-turned-wake in Detroit, Gov. Engler again and again belittled the "borrowed Democratic voters" who had boosted Mr. McCain to a win. But other analysts saw things differently: If Mr. Bush couldn't win moderate, suburban voters, they reasoned, that might spell major trouble in November. Without Michigan's coveted 18 electoral votes, Republicans would find it very difficult to reach the magic number of 270. It was a prediction that would come back to haunt the Bush campaign in the months to come. Super Tuesday: Turning point
By March 7, the ugly primary season was all but over. After a near-sweep of the Super Tuesday primaries, Mr. Bush emerged with unstoppable momentum and more than half the votes needed for the nomination. On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley had failed to win a single state, and his candidacy collapsed under the weight of his own rhetoric. The McCain flameout came after a series of bitter attacks on the Republican Party's most loyal base: religious conservatives. By attacking unpopular high-profile Religious Right leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (he had nothing but praise for James Dobson), Mr. McCain hoped to draw more independent voters to the polls. Going into Super Tuesday, he worked especially hard for New York, reasoning that a win there would allow him to argue that he was the only Republican who could carry the big, industrialized states. But New Yorkers-especially Catholic New Yorkers, the single largest voting bloc in the state-turned against the newly negative candidate, leaving Mr. McCain to limp back to his perch in the Senate. With exactly eight months to go before the general election, the intra-party squabbles were over-but no one predicted the fight that lay ahead. Philadelphia: Big W = Big Win
Outside, a guy on stilts wandered the streets dressed as Uncle Sam, a hand-lettered sign reading "For Sale" safety-pinned to his back. Inside, a tall, limping man dressed as Abraham Lincoln wandered the halls with Eagle Forum head Phyllis Schlafly, decked out in a white vest emblazoned with "The LIFE of the Party." Though it sometimes looked a bit like Oz, it was really just the Republican National Convention. After a roller-coaster primary season that nearly saw the nomination hijacked by a pretender to the throne, die-hard Republicans descended on Philadelphia ready to party. Their man was far ahead in the polls, Mr. Gore was saddled with the Clinton scandals, and the path to the White House looked clear. Dick Cheney, the newly minted vice-presidential nominee, looked distinctly uncomfortable in the swirling lights of his rock-star welcome. But most of the speakers simply decided to go with the flow. Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida donned his Ray-Bans and jammed with his amateur band. "We've never seen this much dancing at a Republican convention before!" gushed another House member, Henry Bonilla of Texas. With so much to celebrate, pesky distractions like platforms and policies were kept to a minimum. Instead, delegates pored over a daily list of parties that typically ran into the dozens. The free booze and cheesy lounge acts were about more than just cutting loose, however: Most were fundraisers for embattled lawmakers facing tough reelection bids in November. The one cloud hanging over the Republican summer soiree was the possibility of losing control of the House of Representatives. Mr. Bush, the most prodigious GOP fundraiser ever, had sucked up so much cash in his record-making bid that many lawmakers feared their own campaigns would be underfunded. Little could anyone know at the time that the Senate was in such danger. Los Angeles: Kiss goodbye
If Philly seemed like a party, Los Angeles was more like a lockdown. Gathered in California for their nominating convention, Democrats felt besieged on all sides: by the polls, by the press, and most of all by the protesters massed just outside the hall. Though party spinmeisters tried to play down the civil unrest, it was an inescapable fact of life in L.A. Chain-link fences anchored in heavy concrete bases ringed the Staples Center for miles around. Burly police officers-made even bigger by the bulletproof vests under their blue shirts-often seemed to outnumber the delegates milling about inside the fence. And as they left the grounds to venture out into the downtown streets, delegates were warned to take off the credentials that would make them an easy mark for angry protesters. Tensions also were evident inside the hall. Liberal speakers like Jesse Jackson assailed the economic conservatism of the so-called New Democrats, eliciting fervent screams from far-left delegates. And a wistful, pitch-perfect speech from the outgoing president ratcheted up pressure on his would-be successor. Members of the press wondered aloud: Would the notoriously wooden Mr. Gore ever be able to earn the worship of the party faithful-much less the votes of the undecided? On the final night of the convention, the answer seemed to be no. After a "Rocky"-like entrance and a three-second kiss with his wife, Mr. Gore reverted to his wonkish ways, delivering a speech heavy on information and lacking in inspiration. Delegates cheered on cue, but Mr. Gore plunged on, his voice fighting the applause he should have been enjoying. Reporters in the hall shook their heads, instantly declaring the speech a flop. But out in TV land, something strange was going on: Many viewers liked what they saw, and they liked his running-mate choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Almost at once, Mr. Gore's poll numbers started to rise, and within a week he was leading his rival for the first time in months. For Republicans, the euphoria of Philadelphia was quickly forgotten as the political reality of a long, hard campaign began to set in. Debates: Cold and fuzzy
With their man trailing in every major poll since the end of the Democratic convention, Republicans watched anxiously as the candidates squared off on Oct. 3 in the first of three televised debates. For Mr. Bush, everything seemed to be riding on this moment: Dismissed by critics as an intellectual lightweight, he had to hold his own with the vice president, a self-conscious wonk in the arcana of Washington policy. Mr. Gore came out swinging and rarely pulled back for the duration of the 90-minute debate. Though Mr. Bush repeatedly accused him of "fuzzy math," the vice president seemed to land a number of body blows. Democrats held their breath and hoped for a TKO. Overnight polls showed almost no change as a result of the debate, but then, slowly, Mr. Bush's numbers began to move higher. At office water coolers around the country, Americans were deciding Mr. Gore had been too aggressive, too arrogant, too know-it-all. Viciously parodied as such on TV's Saturday Night Live, Mr. Gore was desperate to counter that image. So he became a doormat in the second debate, agreeing obsequiously with his opponent throughout the night. "Too limp," the public declared, and Mr. Gore's numbers sank still further. By the third debate, he seemed to have found a happy medium, and his poll numbers stabilized. But with just three weeks until Election Day, Democrats worried it was too little, too late. Having cleared his major obstacle, Mr. Bush was looking unstoppable. But those "undecided" voters remained. October surprise: Arresting the Bush surge
Democrats got the surprise they were looking for, all right-but it didn't come in October. Instead, just five days before Americans went to the polls, a Maine television station dropped the bombshell that a 30-year-old Bush had been arrested near his family's vacation home in Kennebunkport in 1976 for driving under the influence. The Texas governor pointed out that he'd never denied having problems with alcohol in the past, but that he gave it up completely when he turned 40. He hadn't mentioned the DUI specifically, he said, because he didn't want his teenage daughters to know. The revelation sent shockwaves through a campaign that had looked unstoppable, with a clear lead in every national poll. Knocked off-message by the DUI story, Bush aides spent much of the next five days in a defensive mode, leveling charges of "dirty tricks" against the Gore campaign. Though initial polls showed little change in public opinion as a result of the story, exit polls on Election Day showed that more than a quarter of voters said the arrest was an issue for them. Election Night: Understatement of the century
"Unprecedented turn of events" was a phrase that would become hackneyed in the ensuing five weeks, but on Election Night itself, the ping-pong status of Florida's 25 electoral votes-bouncing back and forth from one candidate to the other-was indeed unprecedented. Wet and dispirited, thousands of Bush supporters gathered outside the Texas Capitol watched in dismay as the state was called early for the vice president. Then, two hours later, a near miracle: The networks admitted they were wrong, and Florida went back into the "undecided" column. In Austin, spirits soared and hopes revived. Long after midnight, the Sunshine State moved into the Bush column, and the self-appointed emperors of the airwaves crowned Mr. Bush the 43rd president. Mr. Gore called to concede, and the Texas governor went to work on his acceptance speech. It was a speech that would have to wait. When Mr. Bush's phone rang again about an hour later, it was the vice president calling to cancel his concession. Florida, it turned out, was still too close to call. Both candidates-and the American public-went to bed still uncertain as to the identity of the next president. "Unprecedented," everyone agreed. They hadn't seen anything yet. Counts and recounts: What's next?
The aftermath of Election 2000 burned new images into the national consciousness: Judges with magnifying glasses. Rental trucks pursued by helicopters. Darth Vader and Superman outside the Supreme Court. New phrases: Hanging chad. Butterfly ballot. Contest phase. The Electoral College, that most obscure invention of the Founding Fathers, became the subject of dinnertime conversation everywhere. Day by day, Americans watched as a torrent of litigation swept a routine election to the brink of a constitutional crisis. In the end, the Supreme Court stepped in to prevent what would surely have been a political meltdown on Capitol Hill. A disappointed vice president pointed out that he was bowing to the will of the court-if not the voters. Kind words were spoken all around. George W. Bush went to Washington to get the keys to the government. Al Gore went to the Virgin Islands to get a tan. But the veneer of normalcy was as thin as the four-vote electoral margin that put Mr. Bush in the White House. The 43rd president-elect inherited a nation full of doubt and a Congress full of hostility. Conservatives breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the Clinton-Gore era, then held their breath to see what would come next. Slim and slimmer: Republicans hold the House (barely)
"They fell short," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) when the election results were in. "They," the Democrats, needed a net pickup of just seven seats to win back the House of Representatives they'd lost in 1994. With many veteran Democrats agreeing to run one more time, and Republicans having to defend twice as many open seats, the chances of a turnover looked high. But in the end it was Republicans who gained ground in open-seat races, helping to offset Democratic wins against vulnerable incumbents. The GOP picked up seats from retiring Democrats in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, and Missouri, and, in the evening's biggest surprise, ousted Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), a 20-year incumbent. Democrats fared better at knocking off incumbents. In the most expensive House race in history, state lawmaker Adam Schiff upended Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), one of the impeachment managers against President Clinton. Two of Mr. Rogan's Southern California colleagues, Brian Billbray and Steve Kuykendall, also went down to defeat, strengthening the Democratic stranglehold on the nation's largest state. Rep. Jay Dickey, the conservative Republican from President Clinton's home district in Arkansas, was another incumbent casualty. So, after all the recounts and challenges (one Michigan race was decided by just 100 votes), the GOP suffered a net loss of two seats. That left them with a nine-seat margin, the narrowest since 1953. "Senator" Cheney: 50/50 split
After a year of hand-wringing over control of the House, Republicans were largely blindsided when the real cliffhanger took place on the other side of the Hill. Control of the Senate, rarely in doubt through most of 2000, became increasingly uncertain as Election Night wore on. One after another, voters knocked off powerful GOP incumbents: William Roth of Delaware, Spencer Abraham of Michigan, Rod Grams of Minnesota, John Ashcroft of Missouri, Slade Gorton of Washington. But the biggest news of all for the Democrats came in New York, where Hillary Clinton coasted to an easy win over Rep. Rick Lazio, becoming the first First Lady to hold elective office. Only Republican pickups in Virginia and Nevada prevented a Democratic takeover of the upper chamber. Even so, the best Republicans could muster was a 50-50 split, with Dick Cheney, the vice president-elect, set to cast any tie-breaking vote. Supremes: Uncertain majority
Though liberal pundits deplored the Supreme Court's 5-4 split in the landmark Bush vs. Gore decision, most failed to recognize that such an outcome was hardly uncommon for the high court in 2000. Of the 74 cases decided after oral arguments this year, 21 were settled by just a single vote. Until Dec. 12, the most controversial split decision of the year came in late June, when five justices struck down a Nebraska law that banned partial-birth abortion. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined with the court's four liberal stalwarts to make the abortion right virtually absolute. That was Ms. O'Connor's only defection, however. In every other 5-4 case decided along the usual ideological fault line, the conservative faction managed to hold together. Foremost among those decisions was a 5-4 ruling on June 28 allowing the Boy Scouts to bar openly gay scoutmasters. The Constitution's guarantees of free association outweighed any allegations of discrimination, the court said. In another pair of important 5-4 cases, the five conservative justices narrowed federal legislative powers by ruling against two civil-rights provisions that it said trampled on the rights of states to make their own laws. And after clipping the wings of Congress, the same narrow majority chastised the executive branch, as well, by overturning an FDA initiative to regulate tobacco as a drug. For conservative court-watchers, the 2000 term was a moderate success marred only by a few tragic setbacks like the partial-birth abortion decision. The question now becomes: Can a minority president overcome an evenly divided Senate with an ideological liberal tilt to bolster the one-vote conservative majority on the high court, and pro-life majority?

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