This isn’t about either Larry Craig or David Vitter: may they both find peace (and perhaps a little tolerance for others) in their respective closets. No, this has to do with something infinitely more important — an act of hypocrisy that involves nothing less than an attempt by the GOP to steal the 2008 presidential election, this time by way of California.
Travel with me, if you will, back to those gut-wrenching days following the voting in the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush — a new kind of Republican, as you’ll recall, a compassionate conservative and someone who preached humility and restraint in foreign affairs — had just been declared (by the media following the lead of Fox News) to be the winner of the election. This despite the fact he received 500,000 less votes than Al Gore nationally and the winner in Florida remained unresolved.
As the days dragged on, with Bush’s “victory” ever more in doubt, Team Bush fought on in scorched earth style. Pulling out all the stops they accused Gore, almost certainly the actual winner, of trying to steal the election. They fought to stop Florida from counting legal votes, and moved aggressively in both Congress and the Florida legislature to declare Bush the winner whatever the result of the recount. Finally, of course, they turned to a shamefully partisan Supreme Court to overturn the actual decision of the voters.
Oh — and there was another part to this take no prisoners strategy — something the GOP shouted from every mountaintop: Al Gore, they insisted again and again, was duty bound to voluntarily concede the election to Bush, whatever the merits of his position. Patriotism, they said, demanded it. The uncertainty over the election’s outcome would otherwise tear the nation apart. Gore, by insisting on a recount, was throwing the nation into a dangerous and unnecessary constitutional crisis.
Here’s a particularly spiteful example from that charmer Peggy Noonan:
Al Gore should hang it up. And then he should hang his head in shame. In a great irony of which he may someday become aware, Gore proved at the end of his presidential campaign what he had spent most of that campaign trying to disprove. In words and deeds, in photo ops and tactical decisions, he kept trying to demonstrate that he was not Bill Clinton. And now at the end, by putting the country through a terrible trauma to serve his own needs and retain personal power, he shows that if he is not a complete Clinton clone, he is at the very least a man who has absorbed and accepted the central ethos of Clintonism: “We’ll just have to win, then.” No matter what.
Ah, yes, the awful national trauma of an unsettled election (although the polls at the time showed that a clear majority of the American people favored taking the time necessary to reach the correct result). It’s a wonder, if we give credence to the Republicans’ expressions of alarm, that the very walls of the republic didn’t come tumbling down.
* * *
Fast forward almost seven years. Facing poor prospects of retaining the White House in 2008, GOP operatives are back at their old tricks — trying to steal an election. And they’re doing it in a way which, should they succeed, will virtually guarantee a true constitutional crisis. Setting their sights on the most important blue state of them all, they’re pushing an initiative in California for a constitutional amendment that would fundamentally change how the state’s electoral votes are awarded.
Under the current system — the same one followed in every other state except Maine and Nebraska — all of California’s 55 electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the statewide vote. Were California to adopt the proposed ballot initiative, however, the electoral votes would be awarded according to the vote in each individual congressional district. The practical effect would likely be to take around 20 electoral votes from the Democratic nominee (who’s virtually certain to carry the state) and give them to the Republican nominee, making it much harder for the Democrat to win even if he/she carries the popular vote nationally.
As others have noted, the problem here isn’t per se with the idea of awarding electors based upon the results in congressional districts (as Maine and Nebraska do), but with doing so on a piecemeal basis, with a large Democratic leaning state like California dividing up its electors that way, when large Republican leaning states, like Texas, don’t.
Assuming Democrats respond aggressively (which it appears they will), there’s probably little chance the initiative will actually pass. But if it does, a major constitutional crisis could very easily arise. It’s right there in the United States Constitution: Article 2, Section 1:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
By the express language of the constitution, electors must be selected in the manner directed by the legislature, not under the initiative and referendum process. In other words, the proposed initiative is probably unconstitutional. But given what the Supreme Court did in Bush v. Gore, who can be confident that’s how the decision would actually come down?
Timing now becomes critical: assuming the initiative garners the necessary signatures, the vote will occur in June at the time of the primary election, just five months before the general election. It’s very unlikely the constitutional issues could be resolved that quickly. This means, of course, that we would probably head into Election Day not knowing how California’s electors would ultimately be apportioned. Assuming then the likely scenario that the Democrat wins California by a large margin overall, but the Republican gets the most votes in around 20 of the state’s congressional districts, 20 electoral votes would hang in the balance (the same number Ohio has). In a close election (like the last two) that could easily throw the outcome of the whole election into doubt.
Talk about uncertainty leading to national trauma. It isn’t even clear which institution would ultimately resolve the crisis. Would Congress decide the issue this time? Or would the Supreme Court jump in again? And unlike election 2000, this time the crisis wouldn’t even arguably arise out of the happenstance of an unusually close election, but out of deliberate manipulation of the process by one party with the goal of thwarting the public will. Thinking about the popular fury such a standoff would be likely to produce should be enough to frighten anyone who truly loves this country.
This would be a true constitutional crisis — one with the potential to tear the nation apart.
And isn’t it interesting how some of the very same people who so strongly insisted that it was Al Gore’s patriotic duty to give up rather than risk a constitutional crisis in election 2000, are perfectly happy to risk a much bigger one this time around when they think it might work to their advantage.
GOP — hypocrisy is thy name!