As the nation's attention is riveted to the presidential election and confusion abounds, people have begun to look to history for guidance and even a little comfort. If we've been through this before -- and we have -- we can certainly survive it now. But citing history can be a little bit like quoting the Bible -- you can back up just about any point of view through selective interpretation. And we're seeing some selectivity in the war of words between the Al Gore and George W. Bush camps that has run parallel to the recounts in Florida ever since election night.
Yes, history has lessons for us today, and if we don't learn from it, we know from the old adage, we're doomed to repeat it. Even recent history can be cited to contradict the Republicans' contention that the uncertainty and instability that will come from a drawn out political process is something the country just can't tolerate. We know from the Republicans' own recent pursuit of the impeachment process that protracted uncertainty and instability is acceptable to them in some cases -- and that the country can survive it. In both cases, while it may be more expedient to just say it's good enough and move on, what's more appropriate -- and more unpleasant -- is to see the legal process through to its end.
But conservative commentators are not only ignoring their own history in prosecuting the public relations side of the election aftermath, they are also promoting a questionable interpretation of history in other cases. We are now told that Richard Nixon would have won in 1960 had the race been challenged in places like Illinois, and perhaps even that Gerald Ford really beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. While the charge that Ford may have really won is not supported by any historians we can find, there is some foundation for the questions about Nixon's loss to John Kennedy. While historians say there were "irregularities" in 1960, there may have even been fraud -- although both sides were suspected of it. Nixon really lost the race (which was very close in the popular vote but not in the Electoral College) for his dismal performance in the first debate. And on the last weekend, when it was still close, Nixon went to Alaska to fulfill a pledge to visit all 50 states instead of barnstorming a state like Illinois that could have meant something to him.
But the real historical lesson of the Nixon/Kennedy race -- and of other close presidential races in American history -- is that in losing a close race, Nixon remained viable and came back with a vengeance on the political scene in 1968. Other close races -- in 1824, 1876 and 1888 -- confirm that those who win clouded races enjoy empty victories as their political fortunes have always gone south. It's a history lesson that both Bush and Gore should be paying attention to if they want to be more than an asterisk in American presidential political history.
The 2000 race for the White House could wind up being only the third time in U.S. history that the winner of the popular vote majority did not win the Electoral College, and thereby the presidency. In 1876, just such an outcome caused chaos, only being resolved two days before President Ulysses Grant ended his second term.
In the centennial of American independence, the year Tom Sawyer was published and General Custer was killed in Montana, the currents in American society were somewhat similar to some of those running today. The country was coming off decades of living under the black cloud of slavery and the Civil War -- similar, you could say, to the recent end of the decades-long Cold War. The previous president was unpopular with vast segments of the population for scandals in his administration, similar to the status of Bill Clinton in this race. And the nation was still bitterly split, as, you could argue, it is today.
In that race, the upstart Democrat, Sam Tilden of New York, appeared to have defeated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. And Tilden did win the popular vote, but in finding it to be so close, Republicans, who just that year adopted the elephant as a symbol, stampeded to the south to see about turning the tide. Again it all came down to Florida, as that state's four electoral votes would become the margin of difference. But in the days just after the election, there were reports of people offering to "correct" their ballots for cash, ballots disappearing into the swamps and of the recently franchised blacks being intimidated from voting -- some were even massacred in South Carolina. When the vote finally came out, Florida went to Hayes.
But the 185-184 Electoral College split favoring Hayes was challenged, as the 2000 vote may be, too. January came and went, and still nobody knew what to do. Finally, a special commission judged the balloting and awarded Hayes every contested state by one vote, in an 8-7 vote, reflecting the narrow Republican majority on the commission. But even that conclusion was challenged, as Democrats pledged to boycott the inauguration and use their standing in Congress to filibuster everything and grind government to a halt. Then, suddenly, Democrats dropped their opposition. Early in his term, Hayes removed all federal troops from the south, effectively ending Restoration -- a Democratic priority of the time. Historians now believe that good, old-fashioned horse trading politics ended the standoff that some feared could rekindle the armed conflict of only a decade earlier.
But Hayes' victory was fleeting, as he was referred to as "Old 8-7," a shorthand reference to his lack of popular mandate. The lesson for Bush may be that losing the popular vote could be a blow he never recovers from. But it also suggests that some horse trading politics may be his best antidote to beating irrelevancy if he is declared the victor. One suggestion that is making the rounds is that Bush, with Sen. John McCain's help, seek the ouster of the hostile Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader. It could be the kind of gesture that gets Bush off to a better start than the election may allow on its own.
Hayes left politics and did not run in 1880, when Republican James Garfield won the Electoral College and the popular vote -- although only by 0.1 percent. But soon enough, in 1888, history would be repeated.
Again, the race between Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana and Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York offers some parallels to the 2000 race. Cleveland, the incumbent, was dogged by a sex scandal, as he had fathered an illegitimate son, and Harrison was cut of presidential stock, as his grandfather, James, was president, albeit only for one month as he died early in his term.
That year also represented a high-water mark for money spent on a campaign, as has happened again here today. And Harrison is considered by many to be the first "handled" presidential candidate, as advisers limited his exposure for strategic effect.
But the race had more in common with the 1876 race and its fraudulence. Voters in Indiana, for example, didn't need to register, and "repeaters" voted many times, often wearing disguises to pass through without notice. The state's ballot boxes were made of glass, so party thugs could see whether the Republican-colored ballots made it in after they paid for them.
Despite such shenanigans, Harrison still couldn't win the popular vote, and his lack of popular mandate, although not as big an issue as it was in 1876, crippled his authority. Harrison was beaten easily by Cleveland in 1892, and Democrats capitalized on the public outrage over having the popular vote loser win the White House.
The lesson of 1888 that may apply to the nation today is found in the outrage people felt over the buying and selling of votes in Indiana. For the following campaign, in 1892, 38 states adopted secret balloting, and voting machines even made their debut in New York state. Will anger over an election being swayed by previously unknown things like "hanging chad" and a "butterfly ballot" lead to the same kind of outrage, and will we see a technological upgrade in the nation's clearly outmoded voting infrastructure for 2004?
The lesson for Gore from 1888 may be that even if he loses, his righteousness in winning the popular vote may position him for a successful run in 2004. That is, unless they come up with a way to take away the win even after you win the Electoral College, which is just what happened back in 1824.
With four candidates in the race, the votes were split, with none receiving the 50 percent of the electoral votes needed. So, as called for in the Constitution, the election was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives, where each state's delegation would get one vote. Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral votes, as well as the majority of the popular votes. But after some backroom deals, the House gave the election to John Quincy Adams.
But, again, it was a hollow victory, as historians say Adams' term wasn't much more than a waiting game for his rematch with Jackson, which the southern war hero won easily in 1828. But the election of 1824 clearly underlined the problems surrounding the Electoral College system the Founding Fathers had settled on to choose the nation's leader.
The Electoral College
Strangely enough, the president is the only elected office in the nation that is not chosen through popular vote. While pundits debate the merits of the process, they also seem to be in awe of the Founding Fathers' wisdom. Don't mess with the Electoral College, many seem to be saying, because those men knew what they were doing. Well, the Founding Fathers have been contradicted in the form of Constitutional amendments many times, and without second-guessing their wisdom, we'd still have slavery and women who wouldn't be allowed to vote. That's not to say that they weren't wise, they just couldn't see over the far horizons of America's future.
On the subject of the Electoral College, the Founding Fathers assumptions about how presidents would be chosen turned out to be wrong. They believed the citizenry would remain deferential to their leaders. They thought overly ambitious men would be rejected by the electorate. And they thought the president and the vice president should be the two best leaders at the time, never anticipating that political parties would emerge out of the differences of opinions that were bound to arise over time. In fact, in the early years, electors could not even designate who they wanted for president; they simply chose two men, and the highest vote getter won while the runner up became vice president.
The Founding Fathers were suspicious of direct elections, as they worried about the mob rule and protecting the interests of minorities. And the Electoral College also answered a problem in that they worried the smaller states would be lost in the shuffle and the few big states would run the show (the Senate was the other way they ensured equal representation for smaller states).
Ironically enough, the Electoral College has led to just the kind of disenfranchisement for smaller states the Founding Fathers sought to avoid. This recent campaign focused heavily on big states, while places like North Dakota and Alaska were never visited by either candidate.
Without the Electoral College, however, we wouldn't have had the problems we saw in 1824, 1876, 1888 and, potentially, 2000. And to say it's somehow untouchable because it was the work of the Founding Fathers makes no sense, since changes have already been made to it, from stopping the practice of letting the state legislature choose the electors to other changes made to the Electoral College system in the 12th Amendment.
Evan Cornog and Richard Whelan, authors of the new illustrated history of presidential campaigns, Hats in the Ring, characterize the Electoral College quite perfectly: "It is the electoral equivalent of the human appendix -- it serves no known purpose and is of interest only when something goes wrong."
That said, it appears highly unlikely that the Electoral College will be undone by a new Constitutional amendment (which requires a two-thirds majority vote), as too many states believe it benefits them. Nonetheless, the states themselves could undermine the system and turn it into a de facto popular vote by following the lead of Maine and Nebraska, where electors are not awarded on a winner-take-all basis, but are allocated according to how many votes each candidate receives.