When the dust settles and America knows for sure who its next president is and who, exactly, won seats in the House and the Senate, the ultimate question will prevail: Can this new government actually accomplish anything?
In theory, of course, the answer is yes. But it will take the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job, in an atmosphere now laden with partisan emotion, for Washington's elected elite to rise above Tuesday's tangled election result and forge some kind of formula for governing.
Now, more than ever, "if the president wants to get anything enacted, he'll have to cobble together a bipartisan group - and the ideologues will just have to keep quiet," says Marshall Wittmann, a Republican activist and scholar at the Hudson Institute here. "There's no clear mandate except to 'make nice' and 'make things happen.' "
For the first time since 1888, the United States faces the distinct possibility of putting a president in the White House who won in the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. At time of writing, Florida's 25 electoral votes remained the key to election for both George W. Bush (R) and Al Gore (D). The nation's popular vote favored Mr. Gore, but was so close that overseas ballots still being counted could tip that result toward Mr. Bush.
Bush's initial vote total in Florida put him slightly ahead, when state law forced the presidential race there into a recount. The House and Senate appeared likely to remain in Republican hands - but by the narrowest of margins, even narrower than during the past two years.
Tuesday's result is not an accident of history. It reflects, perhaps, the most purely divided electorate in America's 224 years, a reflection of a nation enjoying unprecedented prosperity, largely satisfied with its overall direction, yet with two main parties and presidential candidates that fully satisfy few voters.
The Nader Factor
Both Bush and Gore faced third-party challenges from their partisan flanks - Reform candidate Pat Buchanan on the right and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader on the left. But only Mr. Nader managed to take a critical bite out of either man's total, a sign that perhaps liberals were less hungry for the White House than conservatives, who ached to retake the presidency after eight years in the wilderness.
At press time, Nader had polled less than the 5 percent nationwide that can signal a fatal blow to a major-party candidate. But in this tightest of races, Nader's totals likely cost Gore several states, even if one acknowledges that not all Nader votes would have gone to Gore.
Ultimately, the election shows just how ambivalent Americans are about where they want to go, says Richard Harwood, a public policy expert.
On their own, he says, "neither of these candidates created a different way to look at existing challenges," but the evenly split environment "may force them to figure out creative approaches - and to find the kinds of solutions people are willing to support."
On the campaign trail, Gore promoted his image as a "fighter," not a compromiser. Bush campaigned at every stop as a "uniter, not a divider." History has shown that having a president and Congress of the same party doesn't necessarily prevent gridlock. In fact, Yale political scientist David Mayhew found in a recent study that congressional oppositions have centered as often as not in the president's own party.
Veterans of Washington's partisan trenches are skeptical that the next leaders will rise above the ugly scenarios that lay before them.
"There's no question whoever is elected not only will have a small margin of victory and little mandate from the people, but will be arriving in a capital that is largely dysfunctional," says Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton.
If Gore wins the presidency, facing a Republican House and Senate, Mr. Panetta says his first reaction is that the result will be four more years of "gridlock and war." But he doesn't rule out the potential for the partisans to work out a modus operandi.
"Any president in the end has to ask the question, 'What am I here in the Oval Office for, and what am I going to accomplish that will benefit the American people?' " says Panetta, who also represented California in the House. "You don't suddenly occupy the Oval Office and say, 'Now how can I screw up the democratic system for four years?' "
The Republicans may feel they have more to prove, as they are still trying to show they can run Congress effectively. By keeping control of both the House and Senate, the GOP has held power in both chambers for four straight two-year sessions, the first time since the 1920s. If Bush wins the presidency, it will be the first time since 1953 that the Republicans hold both houses of Congress and the White House.
Analysts disagree on the importance of a presidential "mandate." Already, both Bush and Gore have won a greater percentage of the popular vote than President Clinton did in either of his elections, but he still managed to enact major legislation, such as deficit reduction and welfare reform.
Still, the last two years saw no major policy changes. And now Congress will be even more closely divided.
"It means no huge policy changes," says former Minnesota Rep. Bill Frenzel (R). "Certainly we're not going to solve the nagging problem of Social Security."
Regarding the budget, Mr. Frenzel sees evenly divided government as "the most dangerous kind of environment." Each party is trying to please constituents, and is doing so through budget spending.
"I see real danger in protecting whatever surpluses may have otherwise been available to us," he says.
Bob Strauss, an old-time Democrat from Texas who has always prided himself on his ability to work with Republicans, doesn't see a solution to the sour climate in Washington. "It's very sad," he says. Then he corrects himself: "It's very troublesome, instead of sad. There's enough blame to go around, for all of us to have our share."
- Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society