I woke up this morning in the clear L.A. sunshine to what you would think might be a grave political crisis: For one of the few times in American history, Americans don't know the day after the vote who the next president will be. George Bush is the presumptive president-elect, leading in the current Florida vote count, but a recount could change all that. Vice President Gore is ahead in the electoral college vote, and appears to have squeaked out a victory in the popular vote.
And yet, no panic, no disorder. What a great country! That sense of peace could change, of course, depending on the actions and reactions of the two men who would be president. We're lucky in a way that it's Florida that holds the balance. We could just as easily be waiting on, say, Arkansas, a state whose own Gov. Mike Huckabee publicly claimed the state might become a "banana republic" around election time. "I thought about calling Jimmy Carter in to see if he could monitor our elections," he quipped before the vote on the Don Imus show. "He goes to Central America to do that."
But despite the high stakes, it is a testimony to America's traditions, and the Bush family's public reputation for integrity in particular, that the press and public appear confident that the election recount in Jeb Bush's Florida will be done in an honest, legitimate matter. There are advantages to having Barbara Bush as "controlling legal authority."
By midmorning L.A. time, Gov. Bush appeared with Dick Cheney to stake his conditional claim to victory: "The strength of American democracy was displayed in this election," Bush said. If the recount in Florida confirms the original Bush victory there, "Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the country" after "one of the most exciting elections." Cheney said briefly he was "optimistic" that the recount will produce "a clear and decisive result." The message could not be clearer to Gore.
In 1960, despite convincing evidence that the Democratic political machine in Chicago and elsewhere committed rampant vote fraud, Richard Nixon was patriot enough not to plunge this country into a legitimacy crisis, opening up election results around the country to countless possible court challenges. The will of the people is important, but so is the American tradition of clear, uncontested succession of power. We cannot afford in a dangerous world not to know who the next president is. Al Gore was right, of course, to wait for the legally mandated recount before throwing in the towel. If the recount shows Gore wins Florida, Bush has said he will concede defeat. But Gore and Clinton staff at least appear to be laying the groundwork for a broader effort to challenge even an accurate vote count on technical grounds. Such a challenge deeply threatens our electoral traditions. In America, unlike in a banana republic, those who lose elections peacefully transfer power to their successors. Violating that tradition would throw America into crisis, leading us down to if not banana republicland, at least the "arkansasification" of American national politics. Does Gore really want that to be his lasting legacy?