Gloomy and combative

Posted: Nov 17, 2000 12:00 AM
I asked a friend recently what the mood was in one Bush stronghold. "Gloomy and combative," he told me. Many GOP partisans are girding up for all-out political warfare, mano a mano, or perhaps manual recount for manual recount, lawsuit for lawsuit, dirty trick for dirty trick.

Maybe I've attended one too many soccer games recently, but the view from Westchester, N.Y., looks a whole lot different: cheerful and optimistic. Cheerful because the common sense and basic good will of this country shine through all the smoke, mirrors and partisanship designed to set faction against faction, regardless of the outcome. Optimistic that with the court decision recognizing the Florida secretary of state's certification deadline, it looks like the normal electoral process is likely to triumph over transparently partisan Gore efforts to manipulate the system.

It takes the political chutzpah of Gore-Clinton to try to narrow the question of election fairness down to hand recounts in four heavily Democratic counties. But the Gore camp has badly miscalculated one thing: They expected the American people to rally enthusiastically to Gore, based perhaps on Gore's apparent, razor-thin, unofficial and still possibly disappearing lead in the national vote. But this is not the impeachment battle. Al Gore is not the president. He is the Democratic nominee who, with peace and prosperity on his side, could not convince a clear majority of Americans to vote for him. Gore's assumption to the office of the president is in no way necessary to the sense of peace, legitimacy and prosperity of the American people, any more than that of George Bush is.

No elections are perfect. Was the confusion in Palm Beach County greater or less than the voter fraud and bribery in Wisconsin? Was the machine count more or less accurate than the hand count? By what standard could we tell? Which candidate the majority of voters intended to support at the polls last week is at this point an essentially metaphysical question when the margin between victory and defeat is this narrow. "Too close to call" is the only possible honest verdict. Still, only one man can be commander in chief and we need to settle who that is sooner rather than later.

I would argue for the spirit of New Mexico where, under state law, ties are settled by games of chance. This is an utterly brilliant solution, possible only in a confident democracy that knows (a) we need somebody to hold these offices, (b) these offices' powers are limited anyway, and (c) there will be another election a few years down the road, where the people will have a chance to make a clearer expression of their abiding will. Of course we cannot roll dice for the presidency, but we can step back from the mind-set that we are engaged in a holy war for electoral legitimacy.

Assuming overseas absentee votes swing Bush's way, Gov. Bush will most likely be duly certified as the victor, and the Gore camp will be in the uncomfortable position of trying to overturn the normal process and win victory by lawsuit.

Al Gore may yet steal this election, through novel legal strategies designed to increase the votes counted in only Democratic precincts. But even if that happens, Republicans should take a deep breath and remember that he has that chance only because both Gore and Bush are within a hairsbreadth of each other in Florida and elsewhere. The republic can survive four years of Gore. We may not survive a political climate in which both parties are engaged in total war without rules, civility and decency.