George W. Bush was elected President of the United States by the Electoral College, with a margin of two votes out of 535, after he had lost the popular vote count by over 500,000 votes. His election only happened after the U.S. Supreme Court had prevented Florida from recounting ballots certified in favor of Bush by Florida's Republican Secretary of State, despite numerous discrepancies and much evidence of irregularities. Until the election was decided by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court, the lack of a winner had a pleasing symmetry to it. Both candidates were rich scions of famous political brand name families. Both had attended elite universities. Both were practiced hands at raising money from wealthy patrons who benefited from political favors. Both had mastered the fine arts of political doublespeak. Both had tuned their campaigns to focus on a very narrow "swing segment" of the voting public, and as such their campaigns blurred and blended into meaninglessness. In a world that thought seriously about the real issues of the times neither would have been elected. And for a brief moment, even in our world neither was. It was, of course, too good to last.
Had the Supreme Court found differently, had the Florida ballots been properly recounted, had Al Gore been elected president in 2000, I would no doubt be writing very much the same essay that I'm writing now. This is because the real problems that loomed in 2000 were ones that Gore did not have viable solutions to. And this is not really due to any specific defects in Gore's character or insight or leadership. Rather, it's because the entire domain of political discourse in the U.S. has been blinkered by ideological straitjackets that interfere with our ability to think clearly and act constructively. The goal of this essay is to start to break through those blinkers, to sketch out real problems, and to suggest constructive ways to think about them. However, as I write this (in the middle of 2004) we don't have the luxury of starting out from the inevitable limits of an Al Gore presidency. First we have to deal, briefly, with the consequences of the Supreme Court handing the presidency to George W. Bush.
Despite their dull, centrist campaign pitches, no one thought that Bush and Gore presidencies would be interchangeable. Each owed at least some allegiance to political bases that could be incompatible, as on the abortion issue. Although Gore would continue Clinton's pro-business, pro-trade policies, he was not free to be as anti-labor or anti-environment as Bush would be.