I’m not a fiction writer. But this is a story I always imagined – as a TV series, a book, a film. So, here is my own little take on the way the world might have been if those 537 votes in 2000 had been counted for the candidate who really won.
Five Thirty Seven
Today was the first day the three of us could all bike together to the elementary school. It’s always felt safe enough, with the protected bike lanes boxing us in from traffic. (Traffic isn’t really what it used to be anyway since the public transportation upgrades.) It was just that my younger child had finally felt confident enough on her wheels to do the seven-block trek with us.
As I ride behind them, I notice how much lighter their backpacks are compared to when I was a kid and we had to bring our own lunch every day. Well, we didn’t have to, but we chose to, because the food was awful. But now with the school kitchens preparing fresh meals, kids don’t really bring their own food anymore. The best part is the rooftop garden where the middle schoolers grow a lot of the greens and veggies for the school lunches – my son looks especially forward to that when he enters sixth grade next year.
Usually, I would just drop them off and bike home, but today, they wanted me to come in to watch the principal hang the portrait of our new president. President Kamala Harris was just inaugurated yesterday, and it was a big deal for all the kids to see the framed portrait of our first black president and the second female president. The staff didn’t want to take the portrait of President Hilary Clinton down so they moved it to the auditorium. The prior 45 presidents make up a poster in the hallway, which will soon be updated.
I remember my first opportunity to cast a vote in a presidential election. I was a college student at the time, and with a laser-focus partying, I think I even surprised myself with my interest in politics.
I was invested enough in the election to write the pro-Al Gore column for my college newspaper, where I was an editor at the time. Even in my cushy, white, middle-class existence at a state university college town, I had a lot to say about women’s reproductive rights and gun legislation. And I can remember that feeling of disappointment when the television flipped from calling the election for Gore to reneging on outcome.
For weeks, we had no idea who the president would be. It was close and contentious, argued back and forth in the state of Florida with a margin of 537 votes in question. And, as much as I was mostly consumed with my own little world, I had some understanding of the stakes.
I was relieved when the Supreme Court, siding with the will of the popular vote, allowed the narrow recount in Florida to continue. They found that most of the voters in question intended to vote for Gore, made complicated by the design of the ballots. On Dec. 15, 2000, Bush conceded the election to Gore.
Not much changed, initially. Gore had inherited the presidency from the Bill Clinton, who shared most of his policy positions. But while the
Republicans controlled Congress at the time, the Senate was tied, with Vice President Joe Lieberman offering the tie-breaking vote. This allowed Gore to make some important legislative changes and convince Senate to focus on “climate change,” a phrase we really didn’t know much about before Gore took office.
At first, Congress was hesitant to listen to much of what Gore had to say. But he earned new respect early in his presidency when his intelligence officials thwarted an unimaginable planned attack on New York and Washington, D.C.
With the legislature feeling secure about its foreign policy and our safety from external threats, they began to invest more time into the looming threat of global warming – something we were all beginning to truly understand.
Congress focused on creating new jobs and incentives in the renewable energy structure and quickly boosted the economy while relying less on the need for domestic and foreign oil. We became a leader in new energy policy, with other countries soon copying our model.
At the time, I was in my 20s. I bought a new car, which required far less gas to operate, and furnished my home with new energy-efficient technology that cost less than the old stuff we had in my house growing up. It seemed weird to me how much we used to pay for gas and oil now that we were simply harnessing the power of sun, wind, and geothermal energy.
Gore easily won another term in 2004 and the Congress won more Democratic seats. Though with the way things were going, the gap between the thought policy of the parties seemed narrower than it used to be. They found that the solutions that made the most sense for the country actually made the most sense for both parties. There were ideological differences, for sure, but with the new Supreme Court appointment of the first black woman, we could see were moving in the direction of progress. Gay marriage soon became the law of the land, and healthcare access expanded tremendously by the bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. John McCain.
It wasn’t always peaceful. In 2007, after the Virginia Tech shooting, President Gore passed the Columbine Act, banning all automatic weapons outside of the military and creating universal background checks. Some furious gun owners held “Second Amendment Rallies” and protests across the country. But once they realize the law wouldn’t prohibit them from owning hunting rifles or basic firearms for self-defense, things quieted down. We still have gun violence, of course. But it’s much less than I remember hearing about as a kid. Some people think it’s due to the legalization of some recreational drugs, decreased poverty, and universal healthcare for mental health – so there’s less reason for certain types of crime that used to be more rampant.
In 2008, former first lady and Senator Hillary Clinton easily won election to become the first woman president. Most people thought the country was heading in the right direction and happily elected another Democrat. Plus, once they had the Democratic supermajority to abolish the Electoral College in 2004, we could feel confident that our votes really counted and reflected the will of the people. With the help of new Senate Majority Leader Barack Obama, even more progress was made for universal healthcare, better public education, an improved infrastructure, and a healthy planet.
It felt like a great time for me and my husband to start a family, and so we welcomed our first child into the world in 2009. The amazing hospital accommodations didn’t cost us anything. I had six months of paid maternity leave to take care of the baby, and my husband had six months paid time off as well, which made it easy to return to my career.
Clinton won re-election in 2016 despite a challenge from, of all people, reality TV star Donald Trump. Things were going so well in the country that it was inconceivable that anyone would challenge Clinton, let alone someone with no political experience and so many bankruptcies. Still, 20% of the country voted for him, because they couldn’t stand seeing women and people of color in charge. It seems like some things will never change, but ultimately, she won by a landslide.
Since everyone in America is now automatically registered to vote when they turn 18, we usually get about 95% turnout for presidential elections. And since President Clinton did such an amazing job of controlling the pandemic – a six-week shutdown with monthly stipend paid to all Americans – we haven’t had any cases of COVID-19 in the states for months.
Now we are entering 2021, after an election with the most diverse slate of nominees in history – well, at least on the Democratic side. Senator Obama had planned to run in the primary but was rumored to have stepped back when there was talk of him replacing Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court. That actually came to fruition just shortly before the election, where Kamala Harris became the first black president, easily defeating Senator Ted Cruz, who’s now retiring from public service.
After they hang the portrait and the principal says a few words, I leave the school and hop back on my bike. I take the long way home, enjoying the wide expanse of protected lanes that circle the city from river to river. Even though it’s January, the sun is out so the cold is bearable.
The wind picks up and carries me the rest of the way home. But I decide instead to stop a few blocks before my house and bring my laptop into a coffee shop. There’s something about working with my earbuds in, just barely blocking out the hum of other people chatting and typing. I take a sip of second black coffee of the day and settle in for a day of the work I love.
I used to work for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, but then it became moot, as sustainability had already become so ingrained into our everyday lives. So now I simply work for the Mayor’s Office, advising on policy communications.
My mind shifts gears from nostalgia about the past to excitement toward the immediate future. This weekend my friends and I will see a special tour of Fleetwood Mac with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks back together as a couple! John Prine is opening.
I turn my Spotify to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” I remember when I first heard it as Bill Clinton’s inauguration anthem. I was 12. We haven’t stopped thinking about tomorrow since.