Why Did Kerry Fold? Ohio Recount Stirs Distressing Nuttiness

Here is the speech John Kerry should have delivered at 10 o’clock on the morning after Election Day. The speech that might have prevented, or at least transformed, the fever of “stolen election” paranoia that is sweeping through cyberspace now. Or, if not prevented it, given people some reason to hope that their candidate cared about their votes, even if he lost-cared enough to make sure, as he’d pledged, to get them counted. The speech that might have spared us the post-election dialogue on the phony “values” issue.

Here’s the “alternate history” Kerry speech. It’s 10 a.m., when only two networks had called Ohio for Bush and none were venturing to say he’d exceeded the 270 votes necessary for re-election:

“My friends, last night John Edwards promised all of you who worked so hard on this campaign that we would fight to make sure every vote counts and every vote is counted. We’re going to keep the promise.

“At the moment, it appears that we are behind in the count to President Bush, but the count has not been completed-particularly in Ohio, which is likely to decide the election-and there will be no resolution or concession until those votes are counted. I will pledge my continued support to the commander in chief, but voting questions must be resolved.

“We all remember what happened in Florida four years ago and how uncertainty about that vote count shadowed the legitimacy of the Presidency for many. We have pledged this time that-for the sake of whoever wins-the people must have confidence that the count has been fair.

“To that end, we are dispatching some of the most wise and judicious election specialists and attorneys to Ohio to investigate reports of voting irregularities, to ensure that recounts are done promptly and fairly.

“We want to ensure that the counting of the 150,000 or more ‘provisional ballots’ is done with absolute scrupulousness and fairness, and that the 90,000 or so ballots that were ruled ‘spoiled’ or invalid have been properly characterized as such.

“In short, we want all Americans to believe this election was decided fairly and accurately.

“As I said, we have a President, and I will defer to my commander in chief. But we will suffer less from waiting a few days-or even weeks, if necessary-to ensure an outcome we can all believe in, than if we rush to judgment with a hasty count whose carelessness may further divide our nation. If, as it now looks, I turn out to be the loser, I pledge myself to help unite the nation around the results.

“But as we have promised you, we will not stop till every vote is counted. And now I will go into seclusion to await instructions from my masters at Skull and Bones.”

(Just kidding about that last sentence.)

‘NON-CRAZY’ THINKING

O.K., let’s pause for a moment so I can make clear what this column is not saying. I’m not saying I believe that Mr. Bush stole the election or that Mr. Kerry really won it. I’m not saying I believe that a careful review of nationwide voting irregularities and problems would do much to change the three million or so popular-vote margin that Mr. Bush received. I’m not even saying that if Mr. Kerry had adopted the Ron Klain strategy (more on that anon) in Ohio, the results would have changed. But we may never know, because of Mr. Kerry’s hasty cave-in, his post-election, pre-emptive surrender. (What happened to the guy who won all those medals because he turned his Swift boat into enemy fire rather than retreat when the odds were against him?)

I know-you don’t have to tell me-that most of the wildest C.I.A./Diebold/Rove/Master Hacker conspiracy theories of this election have been debunked, as has much of the alleged “evidence” on which they’re based. Farhad Manjoo, a Kerry partisan, did an important service in his Salon piece on Nov. 10, in which he cast doubt on some of the more paranoid theories, as have others on the “reality-based” left. But not all doubts have been resolved, certainly not in Ohio, where the provisional votes haven’t even been counted as I write this, where the Libertarian and the Green parties may succeed in getting the entire vote recounted-and in places beyond Ohio as well. (For what Slate’s Mickey Kaus calls “a non-crazy” voting-irregularity Web site, go to http://www.rottendenmark.blogspot.com).

I want to separate what I’m talking about here (mainly Mr. Kerry’s cave-in on Ohio) from fringe Internet conspiracy theories. What I am saying is that Mr. Kerry’s craven failure that morning to call for a scrupulous count in Ohio-which decided the election regardless of Bush’s popular-vote margin-was a stupid, paranoia-generating move.

In Ohio, where a switch of some 68,000 votes could have changed the name of the next President, the count deserved maximum scrutiny. Especially when the combination of allegedly “spoiled” invalid ballots (93,000) and the number of “provisional” ballots (155,000)-whose examination and tallying is still underway as I write-could have made a substantial dent in the 135,000-vote Bush margin. I think it’s unlikely it would have changed the result but, when we’re told the entire American polity is about to undergo a tectonic shift because of a margin that small, we ought to know exactly what that margin was. And if that means recounts and litigation, so be it.

Mr. Kerry’s failure to aggressively pursue the counting and recounting at the outset-that morning, when the evidence was fresh on the ground-has made it virtually impossible to know the vote with the exactitude we deserve. Especially if the Democratic Party is going to change its principles on the basis of 68,000 votes in Ohio. If we’re going to accede to discarding the constitutional separation of church and state, I’d like to know the exact count that mandates it, please.

A DIGRESSION ON ‘SURRENDER STUDIES’

It’s too bad Mr. Kerry seems ignorant of that subdiscipline of military history and strategic theory known as “surrender studies”: the study of how to maximize the differential outcomes of surrender scenarios.

The key document in this once-controversial field is a 1958 monograph called Strategic Surrender. Or how to win (the most possible) from losing. The author, Paul Kecskemeti, a game-theory analyst at the Rand Corporation, studied various surrenders over the course of military history and evaluated them for how well the apparently losing side was able to maximize its post-surrender prospects. (Big winner in losing: Vichy France in 1940, for negotiating at least limited autonomy and an occupation-free zone-for a while, anyway-from Hitler. Of course, much cravenness was required to effect this.)

Mr. Kerry, for instance-if he were smart, if he were truly forward-thinking and unselfish-could have changed what is now becoming the Master Narrative of the Election (a “mandate” based on “values” means: get pious or else). If he had made the speech I suggest (or some version of it), he could have changed the focus from Mr. Bush’s popular-vote win (only 51 percent anyway) to a narrative about the unresolved closeness of the margin. About how the country remains divided-at least electorally-rather than the false (based on misread, inaccurate exit polls) triumph of righteousness (and self-righteousness).

The Democratic Party would be exposing the scandal of the failure to reform our voting procedures to affirm fairness (no more four-hour lines in minority urban precincts, as in Ohio, and similar abuses) rather than getting its collective knickers in a twist over how to appease the intrusive, self-proclaimed moralists by discarding its principles.

But nooooo …. Mr. Kerry denied us the focus on the failure to obtain confidence in the exactitude of voting. (As someone pointed out, if we know how to make A.T.M.’s that don’t make tens of thousands of mistakes every day-and that give out receipts-then why not voting machines?)

And it’s that lack of exactitude, that lack of confidence, that has engendered the paranoia and alienation from the political process that may never be healed.

It’s worth your while, if you’re interested in gauging the temper of the times (and I do mean temper), to go on the Net and see how boiling mad some people are about this issue. It’s true that some are just in denial because they’ve been reading (or writing) Bush-bashing books and talking mainly to each other and are unable to conceive that there are people who could actually disagree with them in the voting booth. But I think some of that anger should be directed at John Kerry, who turned tail and ran out on his supporters in order to preserve his “image” in that fateful morning-after concession speech. In order to avoid looking like a “sore loser”-the phony chivalric gesture that, in fact, is designed to enhance his own image, not address his voters’ concerns. In order to avoid looking like Al Gore. Au contraire, as Mr. Kerry might say, his conduct makes Mr. Gore look like a hero for his willingness to persist in Florida four years ago.

But it’s probably too late for Mr. Kerry to remedy his failure of nerve: the anger is not going away, and it’s not limited to the Internet. I was in a cab listening to the liberal radio network Air America, where a commentator was going on and on and on about the vote in Florida this year-based largely on apparent unawareness of the “Dixiecrat” factor in Florida. (The real problems in Florida-I’m not sure how to evaluate their seriousness yet-appear to be in Broward County.)

More informed analysis has broken through to at least one TV network, MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show has been pursuing the story in a “reality-based” reportorial way, and Chris Matthews has given time to it on Hardball. Brooke Gladstone on NPR’s On the Media did a valuable wrap-up last week. And now a New York Times Sunday editorial has weighed in on the side of a scrupulous count.

No, it’s not Florida 2000 close in Ohio, but it’s close. And in the light of reports of some irregularities and malfunctions already exposed there, don’t we all deserve-both Bush and Kerry supporters-a respite from the allegations of an illegitimate Presidency that are now sweeping through cyberspace? For the sake of history, for the sake of maximum clarity and rationality in our political culture, we deserve the most exacting count possible, even if that means (horror of horrors) litigation.

So why wouldn’t John Kerry allow the votes to be (re)counted? Why the pre-emptive concession? (Which has no legal force: He has to be President if an Ohio recount goes his way.) Why deny his supporters the certainty that the votes had been counted and counted fairly? Why did Mr. Kerry’s nerve fail him? Why do yet another flip-flop and repudiate the words of John Edwards about making sure every vote is counted?

THE RON KLAIN STRATEGY

Here’s how Newsweek recounts the situation on the morning after Election Day, when Mr. Kerry still hadn’t conceded, three networks still hadn’t called Ohio or the Presidency, and the Kerry camp was spring-loaded with litigators who could go to Ohio and demand recounts where called for:

“Nothing but a miracle could save Kerry, and the candidate and his advisers saw that the long wait and inevitable court fights would paint Kerry as a sore loser. Advisor Ron Klain presented an aggressive legal strategy, but Kerry decided to spare the country.”

Spare the country-spare me. Are we so fragile we can’t handle the delay that exactitude might require in the most important Presidential campaign in a generation? “Spare the country”: You see that meme in a number of poorly thought-out editorials and columns praising Mr. Kerry for his cop-out. Noble John Kerry “sparing the country.” Not being a “sore loser.” Maybe not a sore loser, but a loser-that’s for sure.

He made it all about him. All about how he’d look, about his image, perhaps about his future, his pathetic dream of running another inept campaign. What about his followers, who put their hearts into the campaign and were cheated of certainty so Mr. Kerry could bask in the goo-goo congratulations of the sappy and wrong-headed “spare the country” editorialists.

But in fact, he hasn’t spared the country anything. And note that not everyone thought “nothing but a miracle” could have made a difference in Ohio. Advisor Ron Klain obviously didn’t, and there’s a bit of imprecision in Newsweek’s account of the Klain/Kerry conflict. Newsweek’s own voice seems to accept unquestioningly the judgment of one Kerry faction that “Nothing but a miracle could save Kerry,” although clearly there was at least one person in the Kerry camp who disagreed, and we don’t hear anything about his reasoning.

On Mr. Olbermann’s MSNBC show, he asked Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter why reporters haven’t been looking into the reality on the ground in Ohio. Mr. Alter said, in effect, that he thought reporters preferred the outcome to be decisive that morning so they wouldn’t have to cancel their post-election vacation plans. Another great moment in journalism! (Mr. Alter added that he thought when they came back from vacation, “you’ll see” reporters looking more closely into the situation.) Then the Times editorial debunked the paper’s own earlier tendentious debunking (the one that branded just about all election complaints as “conspiracy theories”).

What surprises me is that no one has followed up on Newsweek’s report of a division within the Kerry camp on whether to contest the Ohio result on the morning after. That was the time to do it, when observation of the count could be done while it was still going on; any delay makes it more of a cold case than a crime-scene investigation, so to speak. If Mr. Kerry had dispatched legal teams immediately, the ongoing vote count would be under far closer observation. By now it’s probably too late to know what would have happened if the Kerry camp had moved immediately, despite poor John Kerry’s fear of how he’d be “painted.”

Ralph Nader, showing a rare public sense of humor, did a great imitation of Mr. Kerry making his concession decision. When asked about Mr. Kerry’s cave-in, he mimicked the Democratic candidate whining in his patrician way that he’d be compared to Richard Nixon as a sore loser. Mr. Nader’s a smart guy: He homed in on Mr. Kerry’s primary concern, his pristine image. In a late-breaking development, by the way, Mr. Nader has succeeded in getting the close vote in New Hampshire recounted.

TOO LATE?

Is it absolutely too late? Is it possible an aggressive effort to get an exact count could still happen? There was an intriguing hint in the Daily Kos Weblog on Nov. 8, when Markos Moulitsas pointed out, “The votes are still being counted in Ohio.” (Remember the briefly famous “we won’t count the provisional ballots for 10 days” pronouncement by Ohio’s secretary of state?) The provisional votes are still being counted in Ohio and, Kos says, “if the provisional votes narrow the gap to a point where fraud could’ve cost us the election (say 30,000 votes) the Democrats and Kerry will fight.”

The Democrats and Kerry will fight! This is big news, if true. And he seems to be saying this without qualification ( will fight), as if he’s heard it from someone in the campaign. Interesting.

And then, just as I was finishing this column, two more developments were reported on the “non-crazy” rottendenmark Web site. First, there was a Nov. 11 Associated Press story that Kerry lawyers are in Ohio. The report quoted Kerry spokesman David Wade confirming they were there-not because they thought the election was in doubt, but because they wanted to be sure that all the votes were counted fairly.

The anonymous rottendenmark blogger suggested that this was a smart strategy: play it low-key, as if they weren’t there to contest the result, but if something turned up ….

And then, on Friday, Nov. 12, there was a report that the Green Party and the Libertarian Party had joined forces to demand a recount in Ohio-a request which, according to this report, is granted automatically as long as the parties pay a fee of $110,000. They are now close to raising the funds (go to http://www.votecobb.org to contribute).

So there’s a chance the Ohio votes will be recounted. Again, I don’t think there’s much chance it will change the outcome. But I’d urge readers to help those parties raise the money. I never liked John Kerry much (although in a Sept. 27 column I urged support for him over Bush). I think that Skull and Bones–bred sense of entitlement that is so annoying about the Bushes is what makes John Kerry so annoying as well: his transparent condescension, a condescension voters could see through, which is why he lost an election he should have won. And his behavior, his craven cave-in after the vote, doesn’t inspire confidence in his leadership skills as President.

Still, after the nightmare of Florida and the destabilizing effect it had on the polity, we all deserve a fair and exact count, and Mr. Kerry should be out front fighting for it. Didn’t he run as the bemedaled hero unafraid to fight the Viet Cong and Al Qaeda? Should he really be afraid of Ohio? Turn that Swift boat back to shore, John. You’ve stranded your supporters.