Ten years ago, the United States stood at a crossroads though the dimness of the future made it hard for many to see which path led toward a brighter day and which headed toward disaster. But then, a partisan Republican majority of the U.S. Supreme Court made the choice for the nation.
At 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, 2000, the Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial rulings ever, telling Florida that its recount of the presidential election must include all legally cast ballots but giving the state the absurdly short time of two hours to complete the process.
Everyone immediately understood what the five partisan Republicans William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy had done: they had awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.
They did this even though it was clear that Bush had lost the national popular vote to Al Gore by half a million votes. It also appears that Bush would have lost Florida if the full recount had been given the necessary time.
Even if the butterfly ballot fiasco and other irregularities were ignored, Gore still was likely to prevail narrowly if all the legally cast ballots those expressing the clear intent of the voters were counted, as an unofficial tally by news organizations determined a year later.
So, instead of the deeply qualified Gore becoming president, the largely unqualified Bush took over, carrying with him an anti-government philosophy of tax cuts tilted toward the rich and reduced regulation for business, combined with a tough-guy-ism toward the world essentially the script crafted three decades ago by President Ronald Reagan.
By virtually all objective measures, the consequences of Bush's eight-year presidency were disastrous, including massive federal deficits, an economy ravaged by reckless gambling on Wall Street, and two costly wars still hemorrhaging money and blood.
However, after two years of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress undertaking emergency (and often unpopular) steps to stabilize the collapsing economy, the Republicans pounded a campaign drum of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction, deriding Obama's modest stimulus efforts and health-care reform as costly failures.
In their comeback, the Republicans also were aided by another Supreme Court ruling in early 2010, the Citizens United case, in which two right-wing appointees of President Bush, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, joined with Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy to strike down restrictions on corporate spending for political ads.
The ruling unleashed an unprecedented wave of TV commercials pounding the Democrats as fiscally irresponsible, accusing them of burdening America's children with debt while failing to solve the nation's economic troubles.
Many Americans responded to this messaging about fiscal responsibility by going to the polls on Nov. 2 and handing the Republicans a resounding victory, including GOP control of the House of Representatives and a much stronger hand in the Senate.
However, instead of attacking the deficit, the first act of the victorious Republicans was to coerce Obama into accepting an extension and expansion of tax cuts for the rich, in exchange for more unemployment insurance and various tax breaks for small business and the middle class, a package that would add nearly $1 trillion to the debt.
To the dismay of the liberal Democratic base, Obama apparently has surveyed the power shift in American politics and concluded that he has little choice but to surrender to the Republicans. So the consequences of Election 2000 and the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore ruling live on.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Fittingly perhaps -- given the absurdity that has overtaken American politics -- the Bush v. Gore ruling was an Alice-in-Wonderland exercise in turning legal logic on its head and making a mockery of bedrock democratic principles, such as the one that says the candidate with the most votes is supposed to win.
But how that momentous decision was reached is still little understood by Americans, even a decade later.