Public perception may win this election

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It's hard to know what's more aggravating at this point. We have two men who desperately want to stand behind the podium, but neither seems terribly worthy of the seal.

Al Gore's presidential pit-bull impression - eyes and jaws locked on the prize - smacks of desperation. George W. Bush's I'm-so-inevitable Marlboro Man press conferences, featuring dad's old pals, do nothing but diminish his stature.

The two look like children wrestling over a trophy that they are hopelessly battering in the process. And all the while Campaign 2000, better known as The Never-Ending Story, inches forward on two very different planes.

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In the courts - which, like it or not, are where we as a nation handle disputes like this - the arguments all sound thoughtful and high-minded, if very technical. There is something oddly reassuring about hearing arguments concerning the meaning of Article II, Sections 5 and 15, whatever they are. It all seems like the rules are there and we just have to check the book.

Then there is the rest of it: the daily and nightly deployments of Gore and Bush spinners on television, the coverage of Ryder trucks rolling up the highway, the "spontaneous" rallies. Outside the Supreme Court on Friday, the air was thick with emotion and hyperbole. The anti-Gore sign where the "G" was made up of a hammer and sickle touched those cold-war chords nicely and the anti-Bush sign demanding "a president who can read" seemed to encapsulate how ridiculous this whole thing has become.

The truth is, for the past 3-1/2 weeks we have been witness to more than history; we have been given a little lesson in just where our democracy is and where it is headed, and it's not a comforting picture.

It's true the nation has seen similar disputes over the presidency in its history. As we have been reminded repeatedly in the last few weeks, the 1876 presidential election was thrown into Congress when there were disputed electoral votes in, among other states, Florida.

But we have never seen this type of dispute take place in the age of 24-hour news networks and news talk shows that have become a conduit for spin.

They create the kind of heartfelt discussions that do little to help voters understand anything other than what Bush and Gore are pursuing.

They push the two sides, already entrenched, further into their respective foxholes. They help encourage the busloads of supporters who are carted to and from important sites to mug for the camera.

What's been lost in this post-election election is any regard for the best way of resolving a difficult situation. Spin, in short, is carrying the day and it will probably determine who wins the White House.

The stories over the next few weeks may still center on the judicial system, but the truth is whatever happens in the courts - supreme or otherwise - the impact is not as significant as the public-relations war going on outside of them.

With every Bush press conference and "transition" meeting, Gore is losing this war. There is less support for Gore's contests than there was for his recounts. We may not know all the facts, but many people have made their decision.

And this is significant. Politics, in the end, is about gathering the public's support.

Gore may have won the popular vote. If all the votes in Florida were recounted by hand, it may turn out that he won that state as well. It's virtually certain that more of the Floridians who went to the polls on November 7 intended to vote for him. But at this point all of that may be irrelevant.

Say, for instance, that after all the court challenges Gore ends up winning Florida. What has he won? If most Americans think that Bush actually won and Gore "stole" the election (even if he was actually just following the procedures available to him in a contest), it is a hollow victory. It is simply asking for four years of acrimony before an almost certain loss in 2004.

Looking for meaning in the last four weeks has been a difficult task, but in the spin fight we may have learned more than we really wanted to know. Even in the most serious questions in American politics, perception trumps reality.

And politics - already one of the least noble professions according to many Americans - has drifted further toward being a function of PR.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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