Welcome to the twilight zone

This is about the time Rod Serling walks in and tells what we have witnessed is a dream or a nightmare or something other than a presidential election. The next stop, up ahead, the twilight zone.

As Tuesday night droned on and on and on into Wednesday morning, the word used most often was historic. But weird was more like it.

The big winners: the first lady, a deceased former governor, and a presidential candidate that was yet to be determined. The electoral/ popular-vote split? Who'd have thought Al Gore could win any popularity contest. The Senate? Possibly evenly divided.

And while the biggest question remained unanswered -Who won? -the question of who were the biggest losers was a lot easier. The biggest loser was Ralph Nader, who failed to reach the 5 percent threshold he needed to assure a spot on the ballot in 2004 and $12 million in federal money.

And coming in a close second was the media. Everyone makes a bad call now and then, that's part of life. But the media had Florida playing the hokey pokey all night - declaring it, withdrawing it, declaring it, withdrawing it.

Whatever you want to call this election, historic or once-in-a-generation or weird, its impact is probably easier to figure out than its ballot count. Forget the whole "mandate" conversation. Those hopes went out the window when the numbers looked like they would end up close - and before the hokey pokey.

The question now is whether this contentious race will yield a government that can get anything of substance accomplished. Uniter, divider, it doesn't really matter. After an election like this, there may be some let's-put-the-hard-feelings-behind-us time in the beginning, but those good-time attitudes will evaporate quickly.

And soon, moving legislation in Washington is likely to become the equivalent of moving an elephant through a garden hose.

First off, there is the new House and Senate. It is more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans than before. And while the new split in theory presents the opportunity to build a centrist, moderate coalition, it also gives each individual congressman more power. It will be a tough road to steer anything through.

Second, there will almost certainly be a lingering disgruntlement among the electorate. Even after 1992 and 1996, it was easy to run into chatterers on the Internet who claimed they did not consider Bill Clinton a "legitimate" president because he hadn't won a majority of votes.

What will the losers think this time?

And if the closeness of this vote isn't enough to ratchet up partisan tensions in Washington, consider the partisanship of the vote. In 1980, we heard a lot about Reagan Democrats; and in 1992, Mr. Clinton reached into Republican ranks to build his winning vote coalition. But despite all the talk about this race, there has been little mention of Bush Democrats or Gore Republicans.

That's because there hasn't been much party crossover movement. The reason this race proved so close is that Democrats and Republicans did not leave their party - many of the Nader voters even went back to their Democratic roots when push came to shove.

So what are we left with? The extent of damage will be better known soon, when everyone gets back to Washington, sits down to work, and hopefully makes nice.

But for the moment there are a few lessons from Twilight Zone 2000.

Ralph Nader's hopes of becoming the leader of a viable third party in this country are a lot like RC Cola's hopes of becoming a serious alternative to Coke and Pepsi.

In the end, most Nader voters would rather help decide an election than vote to "blow up" the system.

Every vote counts - particularly if you live in Florida.

And truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction in American politics, even when Ross Perot isn't involved.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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