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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

In 1984, Gary Hart experienced the whole meteoric-crash-and-burn phenomenon in textbook fashion.

The Colorado senator and dark horse presidential candidate finished a distant second behind then-Vice President Walter Mondale in the 1984 Iowa caucuses, losing 49 percent to 17 percent. But in the odd alchemy of presidential politics, Hart was declared the “winner” of the caucuses — despite the 32-point blowout — because he held Mondale below 50 percent and outperformed “expectations.”

Hart went on to win the New Hampshire primary and emerge, for a time, as a serious challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination until a slow unraveling that involved a series of nagging questions about the self-portrayal he put forth in his campaign. He had, for instance, shaved a year off his age, shortened the family name from Hartpence to Hart and altered his personal signature several times.

Small stuff, maybe, but eventually the inconsistencies added up to big questions about the heretofore little-known Hart, exacerbated by his vague and unsatisfying explanations — to keep our scandals straight, it was four years later that his presidential prospects sank, once and for all, in the wake of an apparently adulterous relationship aboard the aptly named yacht Monkey Business.

Now Wendy Davis, another meteorically risen candidate, is undergoing the flyspeck scrutiny of a big-time campaign and explaining away small but nagging inconsistencies in a personal story that, far more than Hart’s, has been instrumental to her early success.

Davis, the Democratic hopeful for Texas governor, burst on the national scene last summer after filibustering to briefly block state passage of stiff anti-abortion legislation. Her physical stamina was impressive, but even more so was Davis’ bootstrapping back story: a divorced single mom rising from the trailer park to Harvard Law School and a successful legal and political career.

Then on Sunday, veteran Dallas Morning News political reporter Wayne Slater published a story raising some questions about the details and chronology of the story Davis and her campaign have put forth.

The essentials are true: a hard-luck background, serious obstacles, personal striving, substantive achievement. But it turns out Davis was 21, not 19, when she divorced, and she lived in a mobile home for only a few months before moving into an apartment with her daughter. Her second husband helped pay for her final two years of college and her Harvard education, a fact omitted from her campaign website, which mentioned only academic scholarships and student loans.

None of that is likely to sink Davis’ gubernatorial candidacy, in and of itself. But the dustup hardly helps. When a candidate’s appeal is so heavily reliant on biography, it’s important to get the basics right — especially as voters are just getting to know a candidate.

“My language should be tighter,” Davis told the Morning News in an interview. “I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the detail.”

On Monday, Davis released a chronology of her life, along with a flurry of tweets and a statement: “I’ve always been open about my life not because my story is unique, but because it isn’t.”

No candidacy goes entirely smoothly, and it is to Davis’ great benefit that the question marks about her background surfaced in January rather than July. But if a pattern of shaded truths or inconsistencies emerges over the coming weeks and months, an already difficult contest could quickly slip beyond the Democrat’s grasp.

Just ask Gary Hartpence.

Photo: The Texas Tribune via Flickr

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.