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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Conservatives Dust Off Impeachment Outrage

Reaction: Incendiary comments have even some on the right fearful of the effect it will have on voters.

November 23, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — They are back at the barricades, scornful of a chaotic election process they believe has defied the rule of law. Conservative opinion-makers, outraged by the Democratic-backed ballot recount movement, are charging Vice President Al Gore with trying to steal the election and launching a virtual coup d'etat.

"We know the whole thing has been rigged," conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told a national audience of radio listeners Wednesday, "and we've known from the get-go."

Moments later, when the Miami-Dade County canvassing board shut down its recount--claiming it could not meet the Florida state Supreme Court's Sunday night deadline--Limbaugh brightened. "Stunning news!"

Like anyone addicted to the roller-coaster ride that is the Florida recount, influential voices from the right have had to scurry to keep pace with developments on the legal, political and public relations fronts.

But as Gore has managed to stave off apparent defeat in recent days through victory after victory in the Florida courts, the more apoplectic conservative leaders have become--and the more apocalyptic their language.

"He's trying to steal the election," Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said Wednesday. "Gore's concern is he doesn't have enough votes to win, so he keeps changing the rules until he gets what he wants."

Their outrage is fast becoming a replay of the fury vented two years ago during the impeachment of President Clinton. And growing among conservative thinkers is a certainty that clinging to power is the ultimate aim of Clinton and Gore--a duo they have taken to lumping together with the same scorn lawmen once reserved for Bonnie and Clyde.

"This is impeachment, the sequel," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst with the conservative Hudson Institute.

Even the nation's more refined conservative sensibilities are quivering with barely sheathed disgust. Columnist George F. Will has referred to Gore's "slow-motion larceny." Former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan asked in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion column: "Could a political party steal a prize as big and rich and obvious as the presidency? Yes. Of course."

Last weekend, William J. Bennett, the former Education secretary and editor of "The Book of Virtues," threatened to exile himself from CNN's Washington free-for-all "The Capital Gang" after rival talking heads jumped all over him for insisting that Gore "is trying to steal this election."

"I take it you want me to play lunatic," Weekly Standard editorial writer David Tell said Wednesday when asked about his own charge in the conservative magazine that Gore had mounted "an attempted coup."

As he rushed to meet his deadline, Tell explained: "This is about the law and the two men who are supposed to be upholding the honor of the law. One of them is not."

As the words fly, a few lone conservatives are urging caution--worried that the spiraling rhetoric may leave permanent scars.

"Both sides are playing with fire," said Leonard Garment, former White House aide to President Nixon.

The right's incendiary phrasing seems neither too far out in front nor lagging behind the attitudes that have set in among conservative Americans in recent days, Wittmann said.

George W. Bush has refrained from mentioning attempted coups. But the slow burn displayed by his chief advisor, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, has been a forceful expression of the campaign's utter disbelief at Democratic tactics.

"There is a shared sense that the rule of law is being undermined," Wittmann said.

Some conservatives admitted Wednesday that their outrage is being stoked by impeachment embers that never quite cooled. "If we learned anything then, it was that the rule of law means nothing to these people," said Norquist, who leads an influential discussion group of nearly 80 conservative thinkers.

When he emerged from his weekly Wednesday morning meeting, Norquist said that "people's passions were running high." He added that his group was already thinking beyond the Florida battle, "focused on changing election laws so we never go through this again."

"What we're hearing is in perfect keeping with the views of the right," said Nina J. Easton, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who recently analyzed conservative thinkers in the book "Gang of Five." "There's this sense that when Democrats and Clinton and Gore win, they win by cheating."

Begala Comments Provoke Fury

Some right-leaning writers said Wednesday that they took up the torch only in response to fiery remarks from liberal talking heads. Wittmann and several others cited "the Begala comments"--a reference to former Clinton aide Paul Begala, who on MSNBC's Web site recently referred to hate crime murders committed in states that had voted heavily for Bush.

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