November 7, 2000
GWEN IFILL: For more on the electoral college and the presidency, we turn to our NewsHour regulars: presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is presidential biographer and historian Richard Norton Smith. Doris, never have so many heard so much about Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. This electoral college mishmash that we're all trying the figure out, is it anti-democratic or is it just the way the founders intended?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It may be one of those institutions or one of those vestigial organs like the appendix, that it is the way the Founders intended it, but it can produce a problem for our system. Take the two examples that you cite. With both Hayes and Harrison, who did not win the popular vote but won the electoral vote eventually, their presidencies were doomed almost from the start because they came in with no real mandate and there was frustration. And I have a feeling that in today's age, if that split occurred and one of these candidates won the popular vote and the other the electoral vote, there would be a real uproar, because unlike the days when the Founders created this system, where only property holding males could vote, we have broadened that electorate out. You don't have to own property, you don't have to be a man. You can be a black American, and you can be a woman. And I think one person, one vote means so much more in the ideology of this country, that I'm only hoping even though it's great for the media, it might be fun for us historians, I hope that the result tonight is that one person wins both the electoral and the popular vote.
GWEN IFILL: I don't know about great for the media. I find it nerve-racking. Richard, Gerald Ford came close to being able to take advantage of this, didn't he?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He did. One thing Doris said - because I think there would be an uproar among the talking heads, among people like us, and cable America. And there would be an immediate demand to abolish this thing, but remember, Gerald Ford became President at a time when his legitimacy was in much greater question than a minority vote winner in a popular election. And people accepted him. And I have to say, I'll stick up for the Founders, because I think they knew what they were doing. They were not creating a pure democracy. They were creating a republic. They were filtering democracy, if you will. There's a famous story in which Thomas Jefferson asked George Washington to justify a Senate that was not popularly elected. And Washington talked about a hot cup of tea. And the hot cup was the House, elected directly by the people. And the saucer was the Senate. And you poured the hot tea into the saucer to cool it off. The electoral college to some degree performs that same function.
GWEN IFILL: Or it became lukewarm in the end. Haynes, was this as the Founders intended? Are you going to stick up for the Founders?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I love the Founders. I bow before the Founders. They created this game great system. Those young men with powdered wigs and silken britches and all that - and they devised this wonderfully complicated system. It's the marvel of8the world, except for the joker in the deck -- and that's the electoral college. It was made for mischief. We've been lucky in this country. I disagree with Richard in this sense: We had the race in 1876. The country almost had Civil War. And in today's climate, I think it would be even worse if you had a tie or you had a one person who won the popular vote and another person actually lost the electoral college. I think today's world, it should be a democratic basis, one vote for one person. That's the only thing in the whole Founder's system that I think just wasn't made for this age we're in now.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, if there were a 269-269 tie, do you imagine that people would rise up as one and say, "never again" and throw this whole thing out?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think they would. But it would be too late. Usually, Gwen, it's the case we only want to reform the system when there is a near miss. Take a look at 1968. That's a time when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. There was the worry Wallace would deprive Nixon or Humphrey of a majority and then be in a position to make a deal with Humphrey or Nixon to get the votes that essentially George Wallace would be choosing the President of the United States. And as a result, there was a suggestion for reform in the 1970's. President Carter in 1977 suggested the idea of going directly to a popular vote, no electoral college, but also saying that if no candidate got more than 40%, there would be a runoff because he thought it was important that if you're going to be President of the United States, you had to have at least something more than 40%. There was another suggestion for reform, too. And that is a little bitter earlier, someone suggested that you keep the electoral college, but you have two votes per state for the winner of the state, and then allocate the votes by congressional district. I think that might be a compromise that might work.
GWEN IFILL: Doris, does the electoral college survive because it never gets this close basically?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think if these occurrences had happened more often, we probably would have had more momentum for reform. But I think what happens is after we get through 1968, when, as Michael mentioned, it was a very close deal worrying that Wallace might have enough bargaining power to secure a real concession from either side, after we got through '76 when it was possible that if Ford had won only two more states, he might have won the electoral college and not the popular vote, that's why I use the analogy of the appendix. You don't want to have an operation unless it's absolutely a crisis. So the energy fades away. And then we wait until the next time it comes. But you look way back in the history, and, in fact, there were two duels as a result of the screw ups in the electoral system the first time. 1800 with Thomas Jefferson, when Burr and he were tied by this fluke in the electoral system at that point. Then you had Hamilton siding with Jefferson and eventually Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him as a result. In 1824, Clay supported John Quincy Adams and one of Jackson's supporters challenged him to a duel, and they almost killed each other. So there's been a lot of mischief around. I think it's time we focus on this. We're not going to have duels between Gephardt and Tom DeLay, I don't think - but that might make it interesting.
GWEN IFILL: Maybe a duel without guns we'll have. Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: One other thing, here we go - you know, this is a federal republic. It's a government of people, but it's also a government of states. And one of the arguments for the electoral college, paradoxically, although California and New York have these huge blocs of votes, we're talking about these big states, the fact is if you did not have a very close race in the electoral college, these candidates would not be making repeated visits to New Mexico and New Hampshire and West Virginia and Arkansas. The fact is they are flown over much of the time. They are almost left out of the democratic process.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I don't disagree with that, Richard. I do think it ought to be proportional. If you got 49% of the vote of your delegation, that ought to be 49% of the electoral college. But the real problem is, Kwame mentioned the electors, the faithless electors as they're called, who actually are not pledged to vote for anybody. Somebody who cast a vote for Lloyd Bentsen in West Virginia and he wasn't even on the ballot -- think about this election if you came down to one vote and you had a faithless elector - or in the case of Harry - 15 electoral votes cast - he wasn't on the ballot. Think what would happen in today's world. I just think that's made for this.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, based on what we've seen about this electoral college, when you see something this close where we could each actually have this conversation on election day, what does that tell us, if anything, about what Americans are thinking about on election day?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it tells us that as far as the electoral college is concerned, this is something people have very much ignored. And think about what might happen tonight. One of the scenarios could be, George Bush wins the popular vote -- Al Gore wins the electoral college. And if that happened, I think what we'd hear tomorrow is, a great cry saying, "the electors for Gore should actually switch to Bush to reflect the popular vote." My guess is that wouldn't happen when the electors meet in mid-December. I think it could compel Al Gore, if he were elected, to appoint more Republicans to his administration and operate in a way that otherwise would not be the case. So it's another case and you find this so often in American history, Gwen, where you have got a situation that's a danger, and Americans don't focus on it until it's a clear and present one.
GWEN IFILL: A constitutional crisis, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think it would certainly be a public crisis. I mean, I agree with what was said before. There have been other times when Presidents had to come in with even less legitimacy. But it certainly would not help Mr. Gore if he came in without win the popular vote. I don't think it would be a constitutional crisis because he will have one. There's nothing that can take that away from him. But it will leave his presidency without the same mandate. Think about it. Lyndon Johnson had to come in after the assassination of John Kennedy. In his own state in Texas he felt naked, like a pretender to the throne, illegitimate. And he became an extraordinarily powerful President in only eight months time. So they can get around it, but it doesn't start it off on a good foot. That's why I hope it doesn't happen that way.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Richard, one more chance to stand up for the Founding Fathers.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think my argument has been confirmed. The last thing we want to do is to touch the Constitution amidst a hue and cry, a clamor from talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, keep your hands off the Constitution.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Let us have our say, though, too in this thing. I think we've been lucky so far.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, Haynes Johnson, we'll see you all later.