Elections in a stable democracy can be exciting, contentious and even nasty, but they should never become uncertain.
One senses that the Democratic Party, in its ferocious power hunger, has lost sight of every competing virtue. To put it charitably, one hopes that Al Gore does not really understand that he is playing with fire.
The gracious 1960 concession of Vice President Richard Nixon to Sen. John F. Kennedy has been cited a number of times since the current battle began -- to the point where liberals are clearly sick and tired of hearing about it. Stop making a hero out of Nixon, they insist. He didn't want to concede but was strong-armed into it by President Eisenhower, who feared instability.
OK, where is the equivalent Democratic graybeard willing to step forward and call upon Gore to desist from this monomaniacal quest? On television a few minutes ago, Richard Gephardt, minority leader of the House, and Tom Daschle, Senate minority leader, appeared jointly with a phoned-in Al Gore to say that they support his contest of the election results in Florida.
Why is this playing with fire? Because political stability is among the most precious of virtues a nation can possess. The United States has endured its share of teasing from Europeans and others about how little difference there is between the political parties. But that is a strength, not a weakness. Other nations must contend with communists and fascists in their national parliaments, along with general strikes, rioting and plunging currencies. The United States has nearly always sailed serenely on, electing now Democrats and now Republicans, and always exchanging the reigns of government not just without violence but with courtesy and sometimes even a measure of grace.
Our rock-solid political stability is part of what makes us a world leader, and it is also part of what makes us the most attractive nation on earth for foreign investment. The expectation of continued stability is crucial for economic progress, risk-taking and growth. Perhaps we have become a bit smug about our system -- certain that nothing can shake it. But in truth, all human institutions, from banks to governments, rest upon a foundation of faith. Our faith was once summed up as "A nation of laws, not of men."
Democrats will counter that we have suffered plenty of skullduggery and corruption in our past elections and lived to tell the tale. True. But there is a difference between legerdemain before an election and unending litigation afterward. If elections do not provide finality to political debates, what will?
Al Gore is hoping that the answer is the courts.
Actually, Gore doesn't seem to care what the answer is, as long as he gets what he wants. His great rallying cry for the first several days after the election was "the will of the people."
But no one ever explained how the will of the nearly 6 million Floridians who voted on Nov. 7 would be divined by hand counting votes from only four counties. Nor is it clear that with one county including only "hanging chads" and another including "dimpled chads" the true will of the voters of Florida would stand revealed.
And while Gore exalted the rights of the local communities to hand count ballots if they so chose, he turned around and sued the Democratic officials who declined to engage in a hand count. And when it seemed that counting only dislodged chads wasn't getting him the total he needed, he demanded that the rules be changed to include pregnant chads.
Bush has now won two machine counts and maintained a margin of victory despite the extension of time afforded to counties by Florida's Supreme Court. That's about as final a tally as it is possible to get this year.
As William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, pointed out in The Washington Post last week, even a hand recount of the entire state would bring us no closer to the goal of a true and reliable result. The race was simply so close that the margin of error for any count would be larger than the margin of victory.
Albert Gore should concede. It is what the best Americans do.