In November 2000, during the election recount, all eyes were focused on Florida, where coincidentally we spent Thanksgiving. The nation held its collective breath, waiting to see who the next president would be. The future of the country literally hung on pieces of chad, along with “butterfly ballots” that misled elderly Jewish voters in Palm Beach County to vote for Pat Buchanan. Finally, the Supreme Court stepped in to stop the recount, in a singular and partisan 5–4 decision—explicitly stating that it could not be cited as precedent—that threw the election to George W. Bush. Al Gore won the popular vote by more than half a million votes, and later, a number of media outlets analyzed the ballots and concluded that, depending on the standards used, Gore would have been declared the winner had the recount been allowed to continue.
How would the world be different if Gore had won that election? Alternative histories are notoriously difficult to predict. Would a Gore administration have stopped 9/11 before it happened? You could argue either way. However, I’m convinced that we would never have invaded and occupied Iraq, squandering countless lives on both sides, wounding many who must now be cared for, costing the US more than two trillion dollars, and fanning the flames of anti-Western extremism. Whatever the military response, I don’t believe a Gore administration would have sanctioned torture, and I’m not sure we will ever regain the civil liberties we sacrificed.
We would not have passed the Bush tax cuts, reversing the Clinton budget surplus and exacerbating economic inequality that began years earlier. The tax cuts, the unfunded war, and the subprime housing bubble surely led to the 2008 financial meltdown, decimating our savings and that of many other boomers as we head into retirement. And with Gore’s environmental advocacy, I would bet that we would have made progress on combating global climate change instead of losing eight years in denial and inaction.
For us, it was a lost decade, a decade of disappointment and despair that millions still feel. Like Alice, we had to run as fast as we could, just to stay in place. We will never get back that feeling of optimism, of security, of confidence in our future that we had as the millennium ended.
But as we sped down the highway toward the Miami airport, listening to NPR reports from across the state about the chaos in the counting rooms, the lawsuits, and the protests, we could not imagine the impact that that election would have on the course of the country. Over my lifetime, I can’t think of a single event whose effects cascaded more significantly than Bush v. Gore. A chad hung, a butterfly ballot flapped its wings in Florida—and the world changed.