Character or cunning, but not both

Posted: Nov 16, 2000 12:00 AM
The most craven man wins. That's why it was Dubya's turn to look bad this week. After chastising Team Gore for trying to settle the election in court, Bush had his own lawyers in court yesterday trying to prevent a hand count of votes in four Democratic counties in Florida. Bush had his reasons. As the Republican National Committee's Cliff May explained, "If you do it in a Democratic county, you get a bigger Democratic count." And as Bushies like to say, a machine has no stake in the outcome, which can't be said for Democratic Palm Beach election officials. They changed the criteria for counting a vote, as the Associated Press reported, twice on Saturday. That said, Bush looked bad fighting against a recount that could recognize votes that lawfully deserve recognition. No surprise, a federal judge rejected his plea. Bush should have pushed for hand counts in all counties, or some GOP counties. Such a plea would have played better in the court of public opinion. Bush lawyers should have demanded a hand count of Duval County, which voted for Bush despite the fact that 27,000 votes, or 9 percent of ballots, were rejected because of double votes and under votes -- a fact about which the Bushies should be screaming. Instead, Bush is trying to seal an election result that may not be his. Worst of all, with every twist in this escapade, Team Gore has been 10 steps ahead of Bush League. It's not pretty to watch the man who would be president outfoxed at every obstacle. A president, after all, has to take on some pretty tough characters from hostile nations. Unless Bush has some secret plan he's not sharing, his performance does not suggest he would be a wily negotiator. Washington election lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who had served as counsel for Steve Forbes' campaign, was impressed to learn that Gore people were collecting affidavits on the Palm Beach ballot the day after the election. The Bushies took up to a day -- a crucial day -- to counter. "There was a sense on the Bush campaign that the process would work its way and the law is what it is," Mitchell noted. "They didn't dispatch people to Florida, stirring people up, getting affidavits." Credit Team Gore for being on top of the election game. Alas, there is little reason to believe that Al Gore would use the same ruthlessness he saves for Republicans against governments that threaten U.S. national security. The Clinton point man on Russia, Gore failed to keep Russia honest when it came to spending International Monetary Fund money. And for all his experience and intelligence, Gore makes rash decisions. When the networks gave Florida to Bush, Gore should not have called Bush to concede the race -- a call he had to rescind. Sleep-deprived and worn out, he made a bad call. Gore also erred in showing how far he is willing to go to win. It is entirely possible that Gore will win Florida after hand counts, or after absentee ballots are counted. By allowing his troops to suggest a revote in Palm Beach, Gore demonstrated that he is willing to risk anarchy and violence to win. Gentleman George at least has let it be known that if he loses a Florida vote count Saturday, he will concede. While he hasn't been as quick as Gore, he at least is willing to think about the good of the country. "Maybe that's admirable," election lawyer Mitchell mused, speaking of the late Bush response to the Palm Beach brouhaha. "Maybe that's the preferable way to have behaved. It may not have helped them politically, but it was probably the right thing to do as a matter of character." Character or cunning. In this race, America can get one, but not both.