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GOP Returns to 2000 Dade County Recount Playbook

August 4, 2009

Every football coach will tell you: if a play works, keep running it until the defense stops you. And so it is with the health care debate. Facing overwhelming public support for health care reform, right-wing groups have deployed mobs to disrupt events and "rattle" Democratic politicians in Austin, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and across the country. As the bitter 2000 recount battle in Dade County, Florida showed, that model of intimidation and manufactured outrage has a proven track record of success for the Republican Party.
The infamous "Brooks Brother riot" in Miami worked exactly as designed for the campaign of George W. Bush. As election officials in Dade County began their manual recount process that might have shifted the county, the state and the presidency to Al Gore, Republican operatives were dispatched to shut it down. As the New York Times summed up the November 22 onslaught:

After a furious demonstration by Republicans, Miami-Dade County election officials stunned both sides in the bitter contest for Florida's presidential vote and decided unanimously today to end their recount of 654,000 ballots...
...Then before television cameras and angry Republican party supporters in front of the county building where the tabulation was being done, Representative John Sweeney, Republican of New York, said the board was influenced by the ''Democratic machine.''
As protesters chanted and waved Bush/Cheney signs, Mr. Sweeney pointed over his shoulder and said ''thugs in that building are trying to hijack this election.''

Then as now, the Republican Party and its allies dispatched GOP shock troops to foment fear and blow up the ballot examination. As Time recalled:

Marjorie Strayer insisted she was just a Virginian on vacation in Miami. She had come to the downtown Stephen P. Clark Government Center to watch the Dade County vote recount -- something to do before the trip to the Seaquarium. But Strayer, it turns out, is a top aide to New Mexico's Republican Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, and was one of hundreds of paid G.O.P. crusaders who descended on South Florida last Wednesday to protest the state's recounts.
"The system is unfair, inaccurate, fraught with human error!" Strayer cried. In a Winnebago outside, G.O.P. operatives orchestrated the ranks up to the 19th floor, hoping to halt the tally of the largest potential lode of Gore votes. Republicans, not usually known for takin' it to the streets, got what they wanted. Just two hours after a near riot outside the counting room, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to shut down the count.
Yet the way the Republicans went after it, by intimidating the three-member board or by providing the excuse it was looking for, gave Americans the first TV view of strong-arm tactics in what was supposed to be a showcase of democracy in action.

Strong-arm tactics, indeed. As Time noted, "the G.O.P.'s march turned into a mob" with "the screaming, the pounding on doors and the alleged physical assaults on Democrats suddenly made a bemused public queasy." But there was nothing "alleged" about the assaults, as the Times account made clear:

Moments later, several angry Republicans, many of whom had acted as observers during the recount, surrounded the local Democratic Party chief, Joe Geller, in the lobby of the building and accused him of slipping a ballot in his back pocket in the tabulation room. Soon, about a dozen sheriff's deputies surrounded Mr. Geller, as the crowd, which had quickly grown to more than 100 people, yelled ''cuff him'' and ''busted.'' Mr. Geller, as it turned out, did not have an actual ballot in his pocket but rather a sample voter card which board of elections officials said he had asked for to demonstrate how ballots were being counted. As the deputies hastily led him to safety, the crowd surged forward, knocking two television cameramen to the ground and nearly trampling them.
In another altercation, several Republican demonstrators shoved Luis Rosero, a Democratic spokesman as he was conducting a news conference. ''I was punched twice in the back and kicked once,'' Mr. Rosero said. ''Everyone needs to calm down and relax. I think we've hit a new low point here.''

As it turns out, Rosero was wrong. The tightly coordinated conservative campaign of intimidation, enragement and disruption (IED) intended to both blow up Democratic health care events and produce the mirage of grassroots outrage is working. While the Politico proclaimed Tuesday, "Dems' break looking like a bad trip," the New York Times announced "health plan opponents make voices heard" in an article that understated the Republican battle plan of astro-turfing with a clenched fist.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the "White House isn't concerned about by health care protests." But it should be. Not because the Republican descent into mob rule reflects the will of the American people, but because it's worked before.
Just ask President Gore.
UPDATE 1: In January 2005, the Washington Post's Al Kamen profiled the pictured "Miami Riot Squad" and asked what happened to them. What happened is that they were rewarded with high-profile jobs working for the Bush White House, the RNC, Republican Congressmen and consulting groups.
UPDATE 2: As Steve Benen pointed out at the Washington Monthly, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also made the same point today about the new incarnation of the Brooks Brothers Brigades.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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