Melancholy winner

Robert Novak

11/9/2000 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- The prospect that at best, George W. Bush will enter the Oval Office as the first president-elect to lose the popular vote since Benjamin Harrison means both parties emerge from the election in deep melancholia. Disappointment is intense on each side. Republicans were surprised and overwhelmed by the "ground war," getting labor union and minority group members to the polls. Democratic leaders are furious that enough liberals strayed to Ralph Nader to deprive Al Gore of the presidency and appalled by the failure to win either house of Congress. The GOP establishment wishes Gov. Bush had performed more effectively, but that is nothing compared to the wrath turned on Vice President Gore by his own party. On the day before the election, Democratic partisans -- fully expecting defeat -- were assailing Gore's unfocused campaign. Nevertheless, the Republican sadness seems more intense. One of Bush's early supporters told me prior to the vote-counting that while the governor was a likable candidate with a well-conceived message, he never effectively presented to America his tax and Social Security reforms. In spite of this, Republican expectation for victory was high, fueled not only by the polls but also the Republican base's determination to get rid of the Clinton-Gore regime. Thus, GOP loyalists were stunned by exit polls, leaked to them by the news media, predicting Gore victories in the pivotal states of Florida and Michigan. When the television networks in fact Tuesday night "awarded" both those states plus Pennsylvania to the vice president, the despair spread to Bush's inner circle in Austin. At that point, the election seemed out of hand to all but the most enthusiastic Bush backers. Bush could still win by achieving the improbable feat of running the board of nearly all the remaining states (including such states as Wisconsin and Iowa, which eventually did go to Gore). The gloom at the Bush high command was lifted by the networks' decision that they had acted too soon in deciding Florida, opening the way to the election of a president finishing second in the popular vote. So, even though the Florida recount is unlikely to change the outcome and absentee voters will probably pin down the state for Bush (as they did for Sen. Connie Mack in 1988), Republicans wonder why it had to come down to this to win the presidency. Instead of the usual tendency of late-deciding voters to oppose the party in power, this time the final weekend showed a surge for Gore. A major cause of the late Bush defections had to be the revelation of the governor's 24-year-old drunk driving conviction, long planned and executed by Democratic partisans. This dirty trick worked far better than it seemed at the time because the Republican party had not really convinced the country to accept his program. In truth, the dead heat for the presidency validates that Americans are divided down the middle by party and ideology. Exit polls show Gore was anathema to Republicans and that Bush had little more success in enticing Democrats. Apart from his minority status and reduced Republican ranks in Congress, Bush must try to win congressional approval of an agenda he could not sell to voters. But before Bush can be president, opportunism will have its day. Rep. Robert Wexler, a very partisan Florida Democrat, was all over national television Wednesday protesting in behalf of aged constituents in Palm Beach who he said mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan. Not to be outdone, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called a Miami "mass meeting" Wednesday night for anybody who thinks he was deprived of his vote. The effort is well underway to strip the election of its legitimacy, and Gore himself cannot be expected to step back from that. If Bush survives this, the president-elect will face a daunting task. Stripped of effective Republican majorities, he must pursue bipartisanship but do so without abandoning his core conservative program. That means he must be much more effective in explaining his innovative reforms than he was in a campaign that ended for him with the embarrassment of second place in the popular vote.