Bush's Unaccountability Moment
By Nat Parry
January 20, 2005
W. Bush has declared his election victory the “accountability moment,”
which both cleanses him of blame for the war in Iraq and may clear the
way for new wars in the future, a kind of absolution and blessing
Bush reportedly is asserting, too, that his mandate
puts him above post-Vietnam War laws that require a president to inform
Congress of covert operations and get war-powers approval. Journalist
Seymour Hersh seems on target when he describes plans to both circumvent
the rules on covert actions and consolidate these secret activities
under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his band of neoconservatives
in the Pentagon.
Like a recent story in Newsweek, Hersh indicates in
a New Yorker article that Bush may seek to replicate the “death squad”
operations used in the 1980s against leftist rebels and their supporters
in Central America. Hersh said the new approach will include deploying
counter-terrorist “action teams” in Iraq and around the world.
“Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in
El Salvador?” a former high-level intelligence official asked Hersh,
recalling the Salvadoran “death squads.” “We founded them and we
financed them,” the ex-official said. Now, a former military officer
added, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”
According to Hersh's article, Bush also appears to
be laying the groundwork for at least limited attacks against military
targets in Iran, with Congress largely kept in the dark. [See Hersh’s “The
Coming Wars,” New Yorker, Jan. 24-31, 2005, and Consortiumnews.com’s
These new disclosures undercut hopeful speculation
from former State Department official Richard Holbrooke and other
Establishment Democrats that Bush might pursue a more moderate foreign
policy the next four years. They have noted that incoming Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice has tapped a few moderate conservatives for
second-tier jobs at Foggy Bottom.
But the purging of dissident analysts at the CIA,
the ouster of heavyweight skeptics (such as Secretary of State Colin
Powell and retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft) from administration posts, and
the transfer of more authority to Rumsfeld’s ideologues are far more
significant signs of Bush's intended direction as he starts his second
“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called
the 2004 elections,” Bush said in an interview with the Washington Post.
“The American people listened to different assessments made about what
was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and
chose me.” [Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2005]
So, given Bush’s reliance on his electoral mandate
as justification for his war policies, it’s not just an academic
exercise to consider how legitimate that mandate actually was.
On Nov. 2, did the American people endorse Bush’s
actions or was this another case where a variety of dirty political
tactics – such as boosting the negatives of his opponent and improperly
rigging the election-day vote totals – combined to make Bush the winner?
Also, what lessons do the elections of 2000 and
2004 hold for Democrats and other Bush opponents on the Left? While
there were similarities in the two Democratic debacles, there were
intriguing contrasts as well.
In 2000, for instance, many progressives
underestimated the risks of a Bush presidency, backing Green Party
candidate Ralph Nader while arguing that Al Gore and George Bush were
basically the same. In 2004, after Bush had revealed himself to be a
right-wing autocrat, many progressives reversed course, bit their lips
and supported John Kerry.
Because of that reversal in 2004, however, the
Democratic Establishment took the Left for granted, positioned Kerry as
a centrist, and tried to finesse a victory without sharply challenging
Neither strategy worked, however. Exploiting his
opponents’ divisions in 2000 and their passivity in 2004, Bush managed
to keep the two races close through Election Day and then seized the
victories despite Democratic complaints of foul play.
The post-election strategies also had marked
differences, though the outcome turned out the same. In 2000, many Nader
supporters and progressives sat on the sidelines of the Florida recount
battle, still insisting that the differences between Bush and Gore made
the struggle meaningless. It fell to candidate Gore and civil rights
activist Jesse Jackson to lead the fight, citing disenfranchisement of
voters and demanding recounts.
In 2004, the roles largely flipped. Kerry conceded
the day after the election when his Democratic advisers concluded that
the pivotal state of Ohio was beyond his reach. But this time, the
Greens stepped forward demanding a recount in Ohio, while the
Congressional Black Caucus and many grassroots activists loudly
protested electoral fraud and voter disenfranchisement.
With Kerry bowing out on Nov. 3, much of the anger
that rank-and-file Democrats had focused on Nader in 2000 was
transferred to the Massachusetts senator, who was seen as reneging on
his promise to ensure that every vote was counted. Many in the
Democratic base saw Kerry’s hasty concession as proof that the
Republicans weren’t entirely wrong in mocking him as a flip-flopper.
During the campaign, Kerry had vowed to “prevent
them from stealing the election again.”
“We’re going to pre-check it, we’re going to have
the legal team in place,”
Kerry said. “We’re going to take injunctions where necessary ahead
of time. We’ll pre-challenge if necessary.”
Kerry set aside a special fund for the purpose of
battling the election out in the courts if it came to that. The campaign
solicited contributions for a
special legal fund “to win the post election day battles.”
The stated intent of the Kerry campaign fit in well
with the determination of millions across the country who were committed
to ousting Bush and protecting the integrity of the election. Not only
were rank-and-file Democrats supporting Kerry with record donations –
Democrats actually surpassed Republican fundraising – but an
unprecedented grassroots effort was launched to protect the right to
Thousands of lawyers and volunteers worked all over
the country as part of an Election Protection drive that was organized
by groups such as People for the American Way and the Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights.
Voting rights advocates launched efforts to educate
voters of their rights at the polls, so that no one would be improperly
turned away. The San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange
arranged for dozens of international observers to come to the U.S. from
all over the world.
In addition to these efforts, activists planned
emergency demonstrations for the post-election period. The Ruckus
Society, the League of Pissed Off Voters and the Truth Force Training
Center launched a project called This Time We’re Watching, stating that
in 2000, “people didn’t use the power of nonviolent protest quickly or
effectively enough” to prevent the stolen election. To prevent the same
mistake, they would arrange protest and direct action in advance.
Others coordinating demonstrations included the No
Stolen Elections coalition, United for Peace and Justice, and a group
called Beyond Voting. At the Web site Nov3.us, tens of thousands of
people pledged to protest in case the Republicans tried to steal the
A similarity in the two presidential elections was
that Bush was put over the top in the Electoral College with votes from
a state where the chief election official also chaired the Bush
presidential campaign. In 2000, it was Florida’s Secretary of State
Katherine Harris; in 2004, it was Ohio’s Secretary of State Kenneth
In 2000, the most notorious cases of voter
disenfranchisement occurred in Florida. Thousands of Gore votes
apparently were lost due to confusing “butterfly ballots” and inferior
voting machines used in low-income precincts. Also, thousands of mostly
African-American voters were barred from voting because they were
misidentified as former felons and knocked off the voting rolls. Then,
after the election, Bush and the Republicans blocked any meaningful
Bush ultimately succeeded by getting five
Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to halt a state court-ordered
recount. Only months later was it discovered that Bush would have lost
Florida if all legally cast votes were counted, according to an
unofficial tally done by news organizations in 2001. [For details, see
Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
In 2004, Bush’s allies were at it again, though
this time, the pre-election shenanigans were obvious in both Florida and
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration again
sought to conduct
a purge of voters who had past felony convictions. Again, too, the
list of 47,000 alleged felons was riddled with thousands of cases of
mistaken identity. It also didn't include names of Hispanics who tend to
vote Republican in Florida.
In Florida’s heavily Democratic Broward County,
58,000 absentee ballots went missing a week before the election, leading
some to suspect intentional fraud.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Secretary of State Blackwell
rejected thousands of voter registrations on the basis of an arcane law
that requires registration forms to be on 80-pound paper.
In minority neighborhoods of Baltimore, campaign
fliers were distributed that urged residents to vote on the day after
the election and warned, “Before you come to vote make sure you pay your
parking tickets, motor vehicle tickets, overdue rent.”
These tactics also emerged in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New
Besides these attempts at voter suppression, there
were also widespread concerns about new paperless electronic voting
machines, with experts warning that they were open to fraud and
manipulation. Computer-science researchers from Johns Hopkins University
and Rice University examined the software code of machines built by
Diebold Election Systems and discovered
it was very easy to
trick the machines into accepting more than one ballot per voter.
The potential for fraud was especially worrisome because there was no
independent oversight of the machines and they produced no paper trail
in case a recount was needed. Also troubling was the fact that Diebold’s
Chief Executive Walden O’Dell, a major Bush fundraiser, announced in
2003 that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes
for the president.” He later expressed regret at his choice of language.
[The Plain Dealer, Sept. 16, 2003, posted at
Diebold’s Web site.]
But many Democratic voters were reassured by the
Election Protection efforts and the Kerry campaign’s pledges that there
was a grand strategy in place ready to neutralize dirty Republican
tactics as they occurred and battle it out in the courts if the need
Reversal of Fortune
Election Day began on a positive note for Bush’s
opponents. Turnout was at record highs, which is traditionally a good
sign for the Democrats and for challengers in general.
The level of commitment and participation was
apparent to anyone who voted that day. I visited several polling
stations in Northern Virginia, and everywhere I went, voters and poll
workers told me that the level of participation was unlike anything they
had ever seen.
But soon reports started flooding into help centers
indicating widespread irregularities. The Election Protection
headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, received thousands of complaints by
mid-morning. By late afternoon, tens of thousands of complaints had come
in from all over the country.
There were reports of black voters being challenged
by Republican lawyers at polling places, of people asked for two forms
of identification when only one was needed, and of polling places moved
to police stations in minority precincts.
Hundreds of electronic voting malfunctions were
called in, and often polling stations lacked enough provisional ballots.
Another major problem was related to the long waits voters had to endure
due to insufficient numbers of voting machines, disproportionately in
poor and minority districts.
In addition to those reports of disenfranchisement,
another issue that raised eyebrows was the exit poll discrepancy. Exit
polls showed Kerry leading by three percentage points nationwide as well
as in nearly all the battleground states, including Florida and Ohio.
But when the official returns came in, the results
flipped almost across the board. Bush seized a lead of about three
percentage points nationally and six battleground states that had looked
to be in Kerry's column went instead to Bush. With all of the
irregularities on Election Day, it looked to many like it was another
So, the next morning, activists in Tucson,
Baltimore, Austin, Chicago, Boston, Madison, and other cities across the
country staged demonstrations against vote fraud and disenfranchisement.
In Washington, a couple of hundred people marched down major
thoroughfares, blocking rush hour traffic and shouting, “They stole the
Meanwhile, Bush was leading in Ohio and was poised
to claim enough electoral votes for victory. But Kerry had not conceded
and many Democrats were expecting a drawn-out fight. Kerry's running
mate, John Edwards, assured voters that the Democratic ticket would not
concede until all the votes were counted.
But a few hours later, Kerry conceded anyway,
stating that even with the uncounted provisional ballots in Ohio, he
could not get enough votes to carry the state and win the election.
While some welcomed the concession believing that a
protracted election battle would be “bad for the country,” it was a
devastating blow to the fledgling movement for fair elections. The
concession effectively erased any chance of a meaningful remedy to the
fraud and disenfranchisement that had occurred. With the election
conceded and another four years of Bush all but inevitable, it became
very hard to mobilize people or to launch a sustained challenge to the
After Kerry’s concession, other stories surfaced
that raised suspicions of the paperless electronic voting machines. For
an error with an electronic voting system in suburban Columbus,
Ohio, gave Bush 3,893 extra votes. With only 638 people casting votes in
the precinct, Bush received 4,258 votes to John Kerry’s 260.
In a North Carolina county,
more than 4,500 votes were lost because officials believed a
computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more data than it
In several states, there were reports of votes
“jumping” on touch-screen computers. Democrats marveled, bitterly, at
how many of the examples were votes jumping away from Kerry either to
Bush or to third-party candidates. “I filled
out my ballot and was shocked when I went to the final screen, and the
ballot had voted for the opposite of what I had chosen on every
a woman in Florida said.
Also, there were remarkable Bush vote tallies,
which were not convincingly explained by the conventional wisdom that
legions of new voters were outraged by “moral issues” such as gay
marriage. In Florida, Bush netted more votes than registered Republicans
in 47 out of 67 counties. In 15 of those counties, his vote total more
than doubled the number of registered Republicans and in four counties,
Bush more than tripled the number. [See Consortiumnews.com's “Bush’s
‘Incredible’ Vote Tallies.”]
When the unbelievable vote tallies and the
discrepancies between the exit polls and the official results were
considered, along with electronic voting machine glitches, it looked
increasingly possible that fraud was responsible for Bush’s victory and
that it was a mistake for Kerry to concede. It seemed far too early to
determine the real winner, and premature to have conceded when there
were so many irregularities to be investigated.
But the Kerry campaign stayed in the background. It
didn't demand a recount or launch a challenge in the courts, or draw on
the deep pool of talent it had assembled. It even declined to support
the efforts of others who were seeking a recount in Ohio.
Carolyn Betts, an attorney who had worked as an
Election Protection volunteer on Nov. 2 and then participated in the
Green- and Libertarian-sponsored recount in Ohio, reported in an e-mail
to colleagues that she had personally contacted a Kerry attorney and
offered to help for free, but had her offer turned down.
Betts said the Democrats had tens of millions of
dollars available “to tear apart Ohio and find out exactly where the
fraud is and propose a viable alternative.” But they wouldn’t spend any
of the money and wouldn’t use the volunteer talent available.
While the Democrats sat on a vast reserve of money
and other resources, the Green Party appealed for donations in order to
cover the $113,600 filing fee needed to move the recount forward. The
party raised $150,000 over the Internet through thousands of small
donations, mostly under $100. A Pacifica radio station funded the
canvassing of Warren County, where observers had been locked out during
the vote-counting on Election Day.
Meanwhile, groups such as ReDefeatBush and the
Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections continued to organize
demonstrations in support of the recount and against voting fraud.
Rallies were held in Ohio, Massachusetts, California and Washington,
D.C., often led by the Green and Libertarian presidential candidates,
David Cobb and Michael Badnarik. Democratic Party leaders were notable
for their absence.
But the protests never were big enough to have any
real effect. With no leadership from Kerry, most Democrats accepted the
election results and began looking forward to legislative battles and
the elections in 2006 and 2008.
When Congress met to certify the Electoral College
votes on Jan. 6, Kerry wasn’t even in the country; he was visiting Iraq
and other Middle East countries. In an e-mail to supporters, he
announced that he would not participate in the congressional challenge
of the vote certification for Ohio. Instead, he urged his supporters to
keep pushing for election reform by demanding that Republican
congressional leaders hold hearings.
On Jan. 6, as the Black Caucus and Barbara Boxer
forced a debate on these voting problems, several hundred people
protested outside Congress. Some people had come from as far away as
Ohio, Florida and California to demonstrate against electoral fraud. One
protester I spoke to, who had driven two hours, was disappointed that
the protest was not larger.
Cobb, the Green Party presidential candidate who
had led the recount battle in Ohio, told the crowd that he hoped he was
witnessing the formation of a new coalition of Greens, independents and
Cobb's observation may mark another difference
between Election 2000 and Election 2004. Four years ago, the progressive
opposition to Bush seemed hopelessly fractured after Nader's divisive
campaign. At least that rift seems to have healed. Many progressive
Democrats expressed gratitude for the role played by the Green Party in
The larger question remains, however, whether a
sizable coalition can take shape to put any meaningful limits on Bush’s
assertion of almost unlimited presidential power.
It wasn’t until two days before Bush’s Jan. 20
inauguration that Kerry made a strong statement decrying voter
disenfranchisement in which “thousands of people were suppressed in the
effort to vote.”
“Voting machines were distributed in uneven ways.
In Democratic districts, it took people four, five, 11 hours to vote,
while Republicans (went) through in 10 minutes – same voting machines,
same process, our America,”
Many Democrats undoubtedly viewed Kerry's statement
as a classic case of "too little, too late." When the issue of
disenfranchisement could have been drawn in a dramatic way with the
election still in the balance, Kerry had listened to his cautious
political advisers who urged him to be a gracious loser and protect his
But the angry Democratic base saw the election as a
matter of life or death, not politics as usual. They feared that Bush
would cite his victory as a mandate for his preemptive wars and his
legal justification for torture. They worried – correctly as it turned
out – that Bush would see himself after the election as beyond
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