Two tracks: transition and courts

As candidates pursue both paths, national mending process is on hold.

In normal election years, the weeks after the election are a cooling-off period - a time to ratchet down the partisan passions of the presidential campaign and begin to unify the nation.

With all its uncertainty and pointedness, however, election 2000 is threatening the national mending process.

The country's political scene has all but split into parallel universes: On one side, the partisan campaign continues, amid hand-to-hand combat over Florida. On the other, both teams, especially George W. Bush's, are making fitful starts at transitioning into power.

It makes the mending harder - hindering everything from choosing a Cabinet to reaching across party lines. But if the uncertainty is creating a sense of urgency, even crisis, it doesn't spell doom.

The paradox, historians say, is that cooperation and bipartisanship often bloom during crises.

"Both the Bush and Gore camps are still in spin overdrive - in public-relations and legal battles to win the White House," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. That, he adds, gets in the way of the transition process.

"You normally see a coming together of the two sides," adds Al Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation here, who studies presidential transitions. This includes everything from meeting with political friends and foes to getting congratulatory calls from foreign leaders to printing inauguration invitations.

Asked over the weekend about transition efforts, Mr. Bush struck a careful balance between being a candidate and a president-elect. "We're all in limbo," he said, but noted there are some "responsible" things he and running mate Dick Che-ney, head of the transition team, should be doing.

The two have been meeting with Andrew Card, secretary of Transportation under Bush's father and the likely chief of staff in a new Bush administration. But asked about basic transition steps such as contacting the outgoing White House team, Bush said: "I think that's a little early. Right now there's still votes to be counted."

At least part of Bush's transition talk is an attempt to don the mantle of victory - and discredit Democrat Al Gore's efforts at recounts, some observers say. Indeed, the Gore team has criticized Bush for being too hasty - even arrogant - in taking transition steps.

For its part, the Gore camp is doing little new transition work. Most of the staff is busy with the Florida recount, while others have been dispatched to New Mexico, Iowa, and Wisconsin, where other recounts are possible.

All the post-election partisanship means not much reaching out to the other side is occurring - although pundits insist that is the new president's only path to legitimacy. After John Kennedy squeaked out a win, for instance, he put two Republicans on his Cabinet: Robert McNamara as Defense secretary and Douglas Dillon as Treasury secretary.

Some observers expect the urgent need for healing will drive a new cooperation this time, as well. "There will be a lot of pressure on the new president to be bipartisan as the only way to emerge from this mess," says Howard Gold, a government professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "It will take real statesmanship."

That's why he and others suspect that, if Bush wins, he'll reach out in a dramatic way to Democrats - to people such as former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, and Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who's close to the Bush family.

There's less speculation about Gore and who he'd reach out to, but certainly he would need to cooperate with Republicans.

Before that, though, someone needs to bow out - and that action alone could prove to be a key element of the mending period. "Sometimes the actions of the loser are much more important in the mending process than those of the winner," says Mr. Felzenberg.

And there's this little fact to ponder: At least three times in US history, the candidate who conceded a close election was subsequently elected president within four or eight years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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