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Campaign 2000: Historian Richard Shenkman Compares Present Decisions About Florida's Electors to Events of Past

Aired November 30, 2000 - 2:05 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And all of this talk about a special session to decide electors is, to say the least, an unusual situation, but it is unprecedented?

Presidential historian Rick Shenkman knows the answer. He's in our Washington bureau today.

Mr. Shenkman, is there something to compare this to? Has this happened before?

RICHARD SHENKMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The closest thing that I've been able to discover is back in 1960, the Louisiana legislature considered a motion to take the electors who had been voted on by the people, wipe them away and replace them with new set of elector who were going to be pro-segregation and anti-John Kennedy. But before the motion could be voted on, it was withdrawn because they came to their senses, and they said that, you know, we really can't overturn the vote of the people.

WATERS: You say "came to their senses," so the Supreme Court never weighed in on this. You know today that a brief has been filed by the Gore people in the United States Supreme Court to make a ruling on this. Do you have any reservations about how this Florida plan might hold up under Supreme Court scrutiny?

SHENKMAN: Well, let me make it very clear I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so I can just deal with facts and things tat have happened in the past, but I'll tell you it's my impression that the American people would find that if the legislature of Florida got involved in this, the people would just be outraged be it because it's monkeying with the system.

It's as bad an idea as Democrat Bob Beckel's idea of about a week ago where he said maybe we could get some of those Bush electors to switch and vote for Gore. You can't tamper and monkey with the system too much. The American people really don't like that.

WATERS: Well, you've already mentioned you're not a legal authority, but I asked one of our legal analyst earlier if there was such a scenario as a competing slate of electors. Say the Florida legislature acts to pick 25 electors, and then Gore wins the legal campaign and wins the recount. Then what happens? SHENKMAN: Well, we've had that situation. That was in the election of 1876. and it wasn't just one state, it was three states. Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina all submitted multiple slates of electors to the Congress. And then they had to sit there and try and figure out which slate are we going to accept. And they didn't have any laws which governed this, and what they finally did was they set up a special commission of 15 members, and they tried to bargain their way out of it. And that's what they did: They bargained their way out of this mess, and Hayes became the president as a result of a compromise on Capitol Hill. And something like that might happen this time.

WATERS: I was reading this morning about Garfield and the closeness there with 37 Republicans in the House, 37 in the Senate, and I believe it was a 12-vote Republican margin in the House. Nothing got done. What do you see ahead for either of these candidates when one of them becomes president of the United States? We have veritable even split in the Senate, and I believe it's a nine- vote margin in the House. Will anything get done?

SHENKMAN: Well, I don't think much is going to get done. I think the legitimacy of the president, no matter who's selected through this process, has been so muddied, so muddled, I don't think that their legitimacy will be established, and as a result, for about two years until the midterm election maybe clarify things, you're not going to have a Congress that can say we have mandate or a president who says we have a mandate to mandate to accomplish anything. So they'll probably just try and get their budget bills passed, maybe even through continuing resolutions.

You know, we still don't have an official budget of the United States passed. Congressional has just been passing its congressional resolutions, continuing resolutions, so I think you're going to see more of the same. And you're going to have the public really riled over this because there's not going to be a sense that there is a political power in Washington which can get things done. I think that's going to be very frustrating.

But who's to blame for all this? It's the public because the public keeps having divided government. If the public doesn't want bitterness and partisan jockeying in Washington, D.C., then they have got to sent a president of the same party as Congress into power with overwhelming majorities, and then, you know what, it'll be smooth sailing here.

WATERS: Well, there have been some suggestions that the American public isn't to blame, that this is the way the public wanted it, wanted some -- didn't want any major changes.

SHENKMAN: Well, then they complain about the bitterness. You remember when Bush came in office 10 years ago, he said he was going to end the bitterness and the partisan jockeying in Washington, and of course, he didn't do it. Bill Clinton comes in; in his inaugural address, he repeats the same claim that Bush had made before. And he couldn't do it. As long as you're going to have divided government, You're not going to be able to get out of this kind of mess. WATERS: It's a vicious cycle, as they say.

SHENKMAN: Yes, it is.

WATERS: Rick Shenkman, presidential historian, thanks so much.

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