The precise origins of Memorial Day are a little fuzzy. According to one version, it was first celebrated in 1865, a few weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant; freed slaves and black and white Union soldiers marched to the site of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Charleston, South Carolina, for some hearty hymn-singing and picnicking. Others place its beginnings in Waterloo, New York, a year later, while still others date it to 1868 and a proclamation by the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Northern veterans’ organization. What no one disputes is that the holiday’s founding purpose was to honor the Civil War’s fallen.
This year, thanks to HBO, the remembrances of the Memorial Day weekend encompassed another American civil war, happily less lethal to its combatants but far from trivial in its consequences: the election of 2000. HBO’s movie “Recount” has fewer shrinks than “The Sopranos” and fewer laughs than “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but its over-all factual accuracy has been attested to by close observers of the events it portrays. It reminds us of some essential truths about the election and its aborted recount: that more Floridians went to their polling places to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush; that a full and fair count would have confirmed the voters’ preference; that the White House was awarded to Bush, the half-million-vote loser across the nation, by a 5-4 Supreme Court diktat. The injustice of Bush v. Gore was obvious at the time; its sequel has proved it to be a tragedy.
The stock defense of Justice Antonin Scalia is a three-word sneer: “Get over it.” Many people find themselves unable to take this bracing advice. The wound to the country’s civic health remains fresh, though of course it is active, committed Democrats who feel it most keenly.
In the current Presidential primary campaign, as in the Electoral College, the “popular vote” has no official significance. According to the Party’s rules, the nomination will go to whoever can garner a majority of the delegates at the Convention in Denver, regardless of how many voters or caucus-goers sent them there, or didn’t. (The so-called superdelegates, who make up a fifth of the Convention, represent voters only in the highly attenuated sense of having earlier won public or party office.) Yet the popular vote, however juridically meaningless, carries immense moral and political weight with Democrats, for whom the 2000 travesty is a station of the cross and vote-counting a kind of sacrament. The superdelegates understand this. That’s why it has been clear all along that if one of the candidates is able to claim an indisputable majority of actual flesh-and-blood Democrats it will be difficult to deny him—or her—the nomination. But what if the majority is highly disputable, and everybody has one?
“We’re winning the popular vote,” Hillary Clinton said last week, after prevailing in the Kentucky primary by a margin bigger than that by which she lost in Oregon. “More people have voted for me than for anyone who has ever run for the Democratic nomination.” These statements must be read with the sort of close grammatical and definitional care that used to inform her husband’s descriptions of his personal entanglements. They are not quite true in the normal sense, but if made under oath they would not be prosecutable for perjury, either.
In a nominating process, especially this one, the “popular vote” is an elusive phenomenon. RealClearPolitics.com, an independent Web site whose numbers political reporters and operatives tend to trust, maintains six separate tallies. At the moment, Obama leads in four of them. With or without participants in the caucus states of Iowa, Nevada, Maine, and Washington (i.e., states where voters’ preferences were expressed by gathering in corners and the like, and whose numbers can be estimated but are not pinpointed), and with the totals for both Florida (whose primary was unsanctioned by the Democratic Party, with the consent of all the candidates, and where no one campaigned) and Michigan (also unsanctioned, and where Obama’s name was not even on the ballot), Clinton’s claim that more people have “voted” for her is factual. But her claim to be “ahead” depends entirely on a tally for the Michigan primary that is distinctly North Korean: Clinton, 328,309; Obama, 0. However, if the bulk of the 238,168 Michiganders who voted “uncommitted” are assumed to have been Obama supporters—a reasonable assumption—then Obama leads by every possible reckoning. And if only Florida is included, then Obama leads whether or not those four caucuses are counted.
Next week, after the three remaining primaries—Clinton is expected to sweep the largest of them, Puerto Rico’s—the likelihood is that each candidate will be able to point to “metrics” showing that he or she is the people’s choice. Obama will almost certainly have the better case, especially in view of opinion polls showing that his national lead among Democrats has been growing, but the reality is that the two have been almost equally strong. Obama will remain the leader in the delegate count, owing largely to a more astute strategy, and he will be the nominee. If there is a loftier lesson, it is that the nominating “system”—and not just in the Democratic Party—is an irrational mess. But that’s not how Hillary Clinton sees it.
Last Wednesday, Clinton described the Democrats’ long-standing reluctance to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations in their entirety, a reluctance that she shared back when she saw her nomination as inevitable, in these words: “We’re seeing that right now in Zimbabwe.” In a speech in Florida, she invoked the Declaration of Independence, “the consent of the governed,” the abolition of slavery, “our most fundamental values,” the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s-suffrage convention, the sacrifice of soldiers, the tear gas at Selma, “equal justice under the law,” and the Voting Rights Act. Worse, she invaded the Democratic sacristy, picked up the chalice, and flourished it like a club, saying that right here in Florida, you learned the hard way what happens when your votes aren’t counted and the candidate with fewer votes is declared the winner. The lesson of 2000 here in Florida is crystal clear. If any votes aren’t counted, the will of the people is not realized and our democracy is diminished.
Well, that depends on what the meaning of “count” is, doesn’t it? Florida’s (and Michigan’s) votes in January’s rogue primaries were indeed counted, and everyone understood well in advance that the question of how they would be translated into delegates was, at best, problematic.
In an eerie echo of the “Brooks Brothers riot” depicted in the HBO movie, when shouting Bush operatives and Republican congressional staffers who had been dispatched to Florida managed to shut down the Miami-Dade County recount, CNN reported on Thursday that Clinton supporters “are planning to swarm the capital in a little over a week to pressure Democratic Party leaders as they gather to decide the fate of the Florida and Michigan delegations.” In 2000, the candidate most willing to deploy principles and trash them, according to the tactical needs of the moment, was awarded the prize. In 2008, maybe not.