Overkill In Overtime

Remember the old anti-drug ad: this is your brain (picture of a nice egg); this is your brain on drugs (picture of a fried egg)?

What's going on in Florida, you might say, is politics on drugs. It isn't coherent, stable, predictable, rational, or under control. It's wild, man.

To use a Bushian phrase, the "doomsday guys" may be right. The "sky is falling" scenarios predicted by the most self-serious pontificators right after Election Day - intervention by the Florida legislature, appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, Congressional battles of electors - now sound plausible, if not probable.

Certainly, in the hours since the Florida Supreme Court issued its ruling Tuesday night, conditions have grown even riper for very weird stuff to happen. Two things are noticeable and worrisome; the pace of events is getting even faster and the rhetoric and passion is getting even hotter. That is a toxic mix.

A chronology of events in the 15 hours immediately following the Florida Supreme Court's decision is dizzying: Al Gore reacts, saying now he must proceed with transition planning; James Baker for the George W. Bush side, saying no one "should be surprised" if the Florida legislature interceded at this point; Dick Cheney went to the hospital; the Miami-Dade County canvassing board announces it will count only "undervotes," flawed ballots rejected by the machines - a huge win for Gore; Palm Beach County Democrats go to court to get permission to count "dimpled chads"; a screaming Republican mob nearly attacks a vote-counter in Miami-Dade County; Bush speaks - condemning the Florida Supreme Court decision; Cheney has a heart operation; the Miami-Dade canvassing board reverses itself, says there will be no recount at all - a huge win for Bush; Gore operative Bill Daley announces they will appeal the Miami-Dade decision.

Given the sheer velocity of events, is it any surprise that politicians speak intemperately or that local officials perform radical flip-flops or that crowds storm county offices? No.

And is it any surprise that the rhetoric has been ratcheted up from righteous and bombastic to fevered and loony?

This is particularly evident on the conservative side. As the amorphous presumption of victory shifted from Bush to Gore, the sense of aggrieved indignation shifted from the Gore camp to the Bush camp. Republican polemicists and politicians openly began to accuse the Democrats of "stealing" Florida. Immediately after the election, it was Democrats who were saying they would litigate until the end of time; now it's the Republicans. And their words demonstrate the disappearance of any sense of proportion.

For example, the conservative Weekly Standard ran a breathless, conspiratorial editorial by David Tell called "The Gore Coup." "Al Gore's attempted coup has exactly tracked the trajectory of Monica Lewinsky episode, his mentor's own triumph over ancient taboos of American life. nd an all-too-familiar scandal narcosis has already set in across the country, for Gore has pursued his goal with a speed and cynical genius that Bill Clinton never dreamed of."

Normally careful politicians were no more careful. Florida Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart called the Supreme Court's decision part of "the stealing of a presidential election."

Rep. J.C. Watts, a leader of House Republicans, said of Gore, "This is a candidate who will not win or lose honorably but will do so through the cutthroat tactics that eight years under President Clinton have taught him."

So in this sober light, Bush's lawyers are now drafting an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Republicans in the Florida legislature are drafting legislation to appoint electors for state's 25 Electoral College votes. GOP leaders in Congress are researching contingency plans for how they can be the ones who select the next president.

And Jesse Jackson proclaims, "We marched too much, bled too profusely and died too young. We must not surrender." Meanwhile, fellow Democrats continue to ensure that large numbers of ballots from overseas soldiers don't get counted and that dimpled chads in Palm Beach do.

The furious momentum of events, the belligerent stridency of both sides, and the absence of any temperate, moderating influences all mirror other protracted, political serial-dramas like the Bork confirmation battle, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill affair, and, of course, the Clinton impeachment trial.

Lows in modern American politics take the form of these made-for-TV mini-dramas. They aren't dangerous to the republic in any deep, existential way. But they are gross. And post-election Campaign 2000 has joined that low-light reel.