The risks of a protracted election decision

A legal fight could fuel partisan feelings in Washington, undermining governance.

Think Washington was tense during impeachment? Welcome to the endless presidential election. The struggle over the outcome of Indecision 2000 has now reached the point where it threatens to plunge American politics into an unprecedented era of partisanship.

Consider the situation: If George W. Bush is sworn in next January, he may take office with a large segment of voters believing he "won" the election only in a narrow technical sense. Conversely, if it is Al Gore raising his right hand, an equally large segment may believe he is there only as a result of what they would call a Clintonesque legalistic trick.

Partisan warfare in Washington was already bad enough. The current situation risks resurrecting the tensions that swirled through the city during Bill Clinton's trial in the Senate, and perhaps making them much worse.

"I can't see a clean way out of this thing," says Howard Gold, a government professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Never before has someone assumed the presidency in a context where a large chunk of the electorate will doubt that person's legitimacy."

Such a situation would not bode well for the effectiveness of the next president and the prospects for congressional action on the nation's problems. But it is a situation, not a crisis. Those warning of a constitutional crisis in the US system are exaggerating the dangers of the current process, say many experts.

But an endless spiral of legal tit for tat could yet explode out of control. Already the nation is in the unprecedented position of one candidate's campaign, that of Mr. Bush, suing to stop a hand recount sought by the other.

"We have a constitutional crisis if we don't have a president on Jan. 20, at noon, Eastern time," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "The whole point now is to avoid that possibility."

An imperfect system

If there is a silver lining to the current confusion it may be that voters now realize what political pros have long known: Elections aren't micrometer-precise. Whether the Electoral College itself is modified as a result remains to be seen. Such drastic action would take a constitutional amendment. But the pressure for at least a national election system, with the elimination of punch cards and more standardization of ballot design, is bound to increase.

"This was bound to happen sooner or later," says Mr. Gold.

But this time around, Americans will have to live with a president who appears to have been chosen by an approximation of voter intent. And that could be like throwing gasoline ... no, like throwing nitro-laced NASCAR fuel ... on Washington's partisan fires.

Impeachment's bad feelings may not have dissipated after all. If Mr. Gore wins, Republican fury could know no end.

Consider the GOP's possible view of the situation: After all this, after President Clinton escaped punishment in a fog of legalisms and spin, after victory seemed within their grasp, to lose again to a strategy of delay and lawyers!

Or Democrats: It was a technicality! Republicans didn't care what the people felt about impeachment, and they don't care who the people really voted for now!

Consider the tenor of President Bush's first phone call to discuss votes with minority leader Dick Gephardt. Or President Gore's first conflict with majority leader Dick Armey.

"All this could make for a long fury, not a short spasm," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The eventual winner of this standoff could be the person who gains in public opinion as much as in the courts.

Dueling PR strategies

Rough public-relations strategies are already clear. The Bush camp wants things resolved as quickly as possible, and thus has a vested interest in trumpeting the dangers of the current standoff, both real and imagined.

Bush adviser James A. Baker III said that going down the current path "will destroy, in my opinion, the traditional process for selecting our presidents in this country."

The Gore campaign, meanwhile, wants the public to simply feel the vote is in overtime - a tense period, but one clearly within the rule book nonetheless. So Gore's adviser, Warren Christopher, was bland as unsauced pasta in response to Mr. Baker's rhetorical Tabasco.

"We're proceeding in accordance with the Constitution of laws and will continue to do so," he said last week.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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