The increased use of words like "stolen" and "illegal," which appear regularly on posters flashed behind TV reporters, raise the emotional pitch at a dangerous time. William Daley virtually declared that the presidential election will be illegitimate if Gore doesn't win. "If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president," he said.
In response, an editorial in The Washington Post, which had endorsed Gore, said this: "A Bush victory would mean that the White House had been stolen; that was the plain meaning of (Daley's) remark. It's a poisonous thing to say in these extraordinary and unsettling circumstances."
The words "awarded" and "will of the people" are just as disturbing. "Awarding" the White House must mean trumping the actual vote count somewhere, perhaps in the Electoral College or perhaps by finagling the Florida numbers so that Gore comes out ahead. "Will of the people" is even scarier. The political terms "will" and "popular will" have a long track record in Western history going back to Rousseau. That record is profoundly anti-democratic, essentially inviting elites to interpret what the common people believe and want. In litigious modern America, that would be a judicial elite telling us how we meant to vote or should have voted.
Complaints about the voting in Florida have taken on the trappings of a political campaign, complete with rallies and speeches. This is an odd development. What is the function of a post-election political campaign? Perhaps it is merely to build public acceptance for judicial intervention.
But more troubling political scenarios are now circulating. One, set forth by Newsweek and MSNBC commentator Jonathan Alter, has Gore losing in Florida and in the Electoral College, but calling on Bush to yield the presidency because he lost in the popular vote. Yes, it's far-fetched. Besides, we don't know yet who won the popular vote. Gore is 200,000 ahead, but several million absentee ballots haven't been counted yet in West Coast states.
Another scenario, a bit more plausible, has Gore litigating the Florida results long enough that the state's 25 electoral votes couldn't count for either side when the Electoral College voting takes place on Dec. 18. That way Gore could win.
Would Gore do anything like this? I can't believe it. He is an honorable man, and a presidency achieved by creating a constitutional crisis wouldn't be worth having. But improbable scenarios are circulating because of the ugly political atmosphere created by a virtual dead heat and the trouble in Florida. The Gore people should think twice about tying up this election in court. The Bush team should back off, too -- the naming of a few would-be Bush appointees was an aggressive act. So was the call for Gore to concede before the absentee ballots are counted. The obvious is true: We need caution and lowered voices.