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Ask an expert: Impact of 2000 election

January 15, 2001
Web posted at: 2:29 PM EST (1929 GMT)

Edward L. Ayers, pictured at right, is the principal author of Harcourt College Publishers new history textbook, "American Passages." He is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ayers received his doctorate in American studies at Yale University. He spoke with senior education editor Lynn McBrien about the effects and results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.

CNNfyi: How do you think the events of this year's election will affect future elections?

Edward L. Ayers: The election of 2000 will have a deep and lasting effect on the elections that will follow. It seems almost certain to result in election law reforms. Some reforms will focus on the modernization of ballots and voting machines; it is clear that the old machines and paper ballots are outmoded and inaccurate. A uniform ballot seems likely to be in place before too long. Other reforms will produce more precise legal procedures for dealing with recounts, so that we are not confronted with the same confusion that caused so much trouble in 2000. Yet other reforms may standardize times for voting across the nation in presidential elections so that voters in the western part of the country are not misled or discouraged from voting by reports from the eastern states; some people believe that voters on the West Coast did not vote because they thought the election had already been decided.

Whether any changes in the Electoral College will result is less clear. Despite many criticisms directed at the institution, it has been an integral part of the American political system for a long time and serves the interests of smaller states that are likely to resist its abolition.

No one can easily say in the future that his or her ballot doesn't count. The incredibly tight result will energize party workers to get out every possible vote in future presidential elections.

CNNfyi: In what ways will George W. Bush's Cabinet differ from President Clinton's?

Ayers: Mr. Bush's Cabinet has more of an ideological focus than Clinton's "New Democrat" emphasis. Although some observers predicted that Mr. Bush, elected on such a fragile basis, would install a moderate Cabinet, he has in fact nominated a number of well-known conservatives for key positions. The nominations of Linda Chavez for labor secretary (now withdrawn), Gail Norton for secretary of the interior and John Ashcroft for attorney general seemed notable in this regard and most likely to meet resistance from Democrats in the Senate.

Mr. Bush has taken a major step in making his cabinet diverse. The large number of women and minorities in major positions, such as secretary of state (retired Gen. Colin Powell), is very encouraging. But what is most striking about Mr. Bush's nominations is the continuity with the Ford and first Bush administrations. In the key positions, most of the major players are in their mid- to late 60s. It will be interesting to see how these strong personalities interact with each other and stand up to the rigors of a faster-paced government and news cycle than in the Ford years.

CNNfyi: What kind of legislation do you think can get through the Congress with such an even split in political parties represented? What kinds of compromises do you think we will see? How might that alter laws and policies that the American people would like to see affected?

Ayers: Getting any legislation through Congress with a Senate split evenly between Democrats and Republicans will be difficult, especially since there are five or six Republican senators up in 2002 who will be facing re-election so are likely to be quite cautious. A tax cut of some size is likely, but Medicare reform, Social Security changes and even education reform are more problematic. Mr. Bush will want accomplishments this year because next year, with an election, will be even less conducive to substantive achievement.

The only legislation sure to get through will be moderate in tone. Compromise will be the order of the day on issues such as tax cuts and welfare reform. Issues steeped in "morality" and ideology, such as abortion and gay rights, would cause enormous rifts without really changing present policy. Foreign affairs should go smoothly, because there is wide bipartisan support for Powell and for other Bush appointees, including a number from previous Republican administrations. There could be major congressional battles over defense issues if President Bush decides to dramatically increase military spending for controversial weapons systems.

CNNfyi: What differences might we anticipate between the Clinton and Bush presidencies? In what ways might these changes affect our daily lives?

Ayers: In broad outlines, the Bush administration will try to roll back the emphases of the Clinton administration and seems determined to install a tax cut of some form. The two administrations are already differing over environmental policies. Also, liberals and conservatives are mobilizing for a conflict over abortion, especially in the nomination of Ashcroft for attorney general.

Despite these fights, the similarities may be more striking than the differences. Welfare reform, the Brady Bill, the assault weapons ban, trade policy, even affirmative action and gays in the military are probably not going to be much affected.

The immediate effects of any changes may not be apparent. As with many laws from Washington, the effects are deep and long-lasting rather than obvious and quick.

CNNfyi: Historically, when there is a major shift in policy from one administration to another, how does it affect the economy? What prediction would you make for the coming economy?

Ayers: The single issue that concerns most people -- the economy -- seems difficult for anyone to predict. The only prediction that a historian can make with confidence is that most predictions do not come true! The great constant of history is surprise. Big changes often come when we expect them the least, as in 1929, with the stock market crash, and in 1989, with the collapse of communist governments.

CNNfyi: How do you think Bush will manage the media, and how do you think he will be portrayed by the media?

Ayers: Neither party feels that the media treat them fairly. Different parts of the media have responded quite differently to President Clinton and to Mr. Bush. Generally, the talk shows that seem to influence so many people and reflect their opinions take shots at the two men in about equal proportions, though poking fun at them for different things. Mr. Bush's biggest challenge seems to be overcoming the widespread portrayal of him as a man of limited ability with language and quick thinking.

Of course, as Eisenhower and Reagan demonstrated, a president can still be popular and effective by reaching beyond media stereotypes. The American people do not necessarily believe everything they read in the newspapers or see on television. They will be the final judge about the success or failure of the Bush presidency.

CNNfyi: How do you think that Election 2000 will be handled in the history books?

Ayers: The 2000 election will attract as much historical attention, if not more, than such elections as 1960 and 1968 because of its inherent drama, the length of the contest and the significant way in which all branches of government were drawn into the fray. If it turns out that Mr. Gore did, in fact, gain more votes than Mr. Bush in Florida because of press recounts, that too will add to the controversy surrounding the election.

The election already seems assured of a place in the history books of the future, but the events of the next four years will determine what the larger story looks like.

CNNfyi: What lessons would you want students to learn from the events that occurred in the 2000 U.S. presidential election?

Ayers: The biggest lesson students can take from this election is that history is more relevant and present than it sometimes appears. To understand what was going on, a student needed to be aware of the role and purpose of the Electoral College, the way in which voting procedures have evolved, the nature of federalism, especially as it applies to the judiciary and the examples of previous elections such as 1800, 1876 and 1888.

The 2000 election played a very important role in educating people about the political process. It was amazing to see Americans learning -- and debating -- the importance of the Electoral College, the role of the courts and the power of individual states in determining election procedure. In addition, it reaffirmed both the stability of our democratic system and the importance of voting.

All in all, a very good civics lesson for our nation.

Few elections have resonated more with historical precedents and examples, and the notion that the past is somehow irrelevant and peripheral to modern times was refuted in abundance during the events of November-December 2000.

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