Careful about the blaming

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — I always marvel at the straight-faced certainty with which TV reporters tell us not just what the stock market did, but why. You know what I mean:

The market, reacting to the Fed’s neutral bias on interest rates. … Wall Street, buoyed by hints that unemployment numbers would be higher than expected. … Worries about the borrowing difficulties of dot-com companies triggered a sell-off. …

The temptation to claim to know not just what, but why, is especially strong in the case of big, surprising and important events.

These thoughts are triggered, naturally, by the big, constantly surprising and critically important goings-on in the Florida, as the nation waits to find out who the next president will be. There’s a virtual consensus that matters are in a mess — perhaps even moving toward constitutional crisis.

What is the cause of this mess? I don’t know. But I would like to offer a few exculpatory remarks.

Don’t blame Florida. If Florida is the focus of our attention now, it is because it came out of the Nov. 7 election with a vote that was both too close to call and big enough to deliver the presidency. Change a few facts, and the focus would have been elsewhere.

Don’t blame Florida’s antiquated card-punch voting machines. They are a long way from state of the art, but we are talking about them only because the vote count in Florida was so close.

Don’t blame network television. Sure, it jumped the gun — especially by "calling" Florida for Gore before the Panhandle had finished voting. But to suggest (as some GOP partisans have) that the networks were acting in concert to help Al Gore is absurd.

Don’t blame George W. Bush or Al Gore for continuing to fight for victory. It would be extraordinary if they should concede while there is a reasonable chance that a recount, reconsideration or new judicial ruling could tilt things their way.

Don’t blame Bush for hoping the counting could be halted with the original machine count, which left him ahead, or Gore for insisting that ballots be counted as long as it was possible to figure out what those voters whose ballots were rejected intended. Each took recourse to the principle that figured to serve his interest.

Don’t blame Ralph Nader. Obviously the votes he got in Florida could have made the difference (probably for Gore), but he learned that when the rest of us learned it — after the voting was over. Similarly, don’t blame Pat Buchanan.

Don’t blame Katherine Harris. True, she was in the position of being both assistant coach (co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign) and referee (Florida’s secretary of state). But as long as she legally held both positions, who can say she should have recused herself from about the only important function of her office — overseeing elections?

Don’t blame the recounters. These men and women have undertaken an arduous, eye-straining, conscience-testing task and, by all accounts, appear to be doing a marvelous job of it. It is shameful that some Republicans who never wanted a recount are suggesting (a) that the vote counters, who always work in bipartisan teams, are cheating and (b) that multiple handling of the punch-card ballots might somehow switch a vote from one candidate to another. It reminds me of the implication of O.J.’s defense lawyers that careless handling of blood samples could change someone else’s DNA into his.

The blame, if we must call it that, is that the election is so close — that the difference in the vote count is smaller than the margin of error for either mechanical counters or human ones.

We have what amounts to an electoral tie, and we don’t have any really satisfactory way of dealing with it.

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