WASHINGTON — Our quadrennial election should be a unifying experience. This one was far from that - not because of the closeness of the vote, but because of what exit polling revealed about a nation at peace, but not with itself; prosperous, but not really enjoying that prosperity.
Many fissures ran through the voting population. Gov. George W. Bush was ahead by nine percentage points with men; Vice President Al Gore by 12 points with women. Voters in big cities went 3 to 1 for Mr. Gore; suburban and rural dwellers went for Mr. Bush. Gore did better with blacks and Bush with whites; Gore with low-income people; Bush with high-income people; Bush with Christians and Gore with Jews. Gore got 83 percent of those who wanted an experienced president; Bush 78 percent of those who wanted an honest president.
Some numbers reflect different perceptions of the state of things in America.
Gore was favored by 74 percent of those who think the government should do more and Bush by 70 percent of those who think the government should do less. Bush was favored by 71 percent of those who think our military has gotten weaker in the past eight years; Gore by 68 percent of those who think the military is stronger. Gore led by a wide margin among those who consider America on the right track economically; Bush was way ahead among those who think America is on the wrong track morally.
From these numbers one would gather some profound ideological chasm leaving the voting population fractured. Like Serbia choosing between freedom and repression or Nigeria between dictatorship and democracy.
In fact, in real terms the two major American parties tend to cling to the center, where the increasingly important independent voter dwells, and differences over domestic and foreign policy are less sharp than advertised.
It was a $3 billion campaign, which used television to dramatize a sense of fateful choices, that left an impression of profound cleavage over health, education, and taxes. And so, a free election of the kind that people would give - and have given - their lives for leaves us with a slightly sour taste, wishing for "a more perfect union."
If the genuine gravity of this election never appeared during the campaign, it won't take long for our new president to find he faces a changing international environment.
Only a decade ago, America celebrated victory in the cold war and prepared to lead a global parade to free markets and democracy. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States assembled overwhelming strength and a broad coalition to crush Saddam Hussein. And to keep him from making more trouble, inspectors looked for hidden weapons, and planes patrolled no-fly zones.
But in case you haven't noticed, Saddam Hussein is out of his box. United Nations arms inspectors have been turned away. American planes are patrolling Iraqi skies much less aggressively. French and other commercial planes fly into Baghdad, ignoring the UN embargo, and Arab states, like Jordan, are renewing diplomatic and commercial ties. And adding insult to insult, Iraq will not sign oil export contracts denominated in dollars, only in euros.
Cuba is a target of a harsh American embargo that Congress has tried to extend to other countries. But look what happened in Caracas. Fidel Castro, at the end of a five-day state visit, signed an economic pact with Venezuela that will give Cuba oil at cut-rate prices. Lest the significance of that be missed, Mr. Castro joked about how many American presidents he has survived, and President Hugo Chavez talked of their countries being joined in "a geopolitical vision," an axis of power with other developing countries. That's really thumbing your nose at the colossus of the North.
Or take Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, was in Paris last month for a Russian-European Union summit. He offered oil and natural gas as part of a deal for a "greater Europe."
You'd think that Russia, having lost the cold war, would show some regard for the victor. But when the Clinton administration in 1995 tried to get Russia to end arms deliveries to Iran, Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed to a terminal date which Russia then violated, leaving Vice President Gore with egg on his face for having agreed to keep the whole thing secret from Congress.
The question our new president may soon be asking himself: What's the use of being a superpower if you don't get any respect?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society