Bush will have to build from a precarious foundation.

As he recovers from the strain and stress of the longest election in American history, George W. Bush might do well to ponder this possibility: The hardest part of his journey has yet to begin.

He will become president, true. He will be the first Republican chief executive since Dwight Eisenhower to deal with a Congress controlled by his own party.

But some supporters of the defeated Al Gore may believe the new President Bush to be president with an asterisk, someone who won the office on a technicality. And he will take office with the nation's politics as polarized as an electric current - and in the knowledge that Florida's disputed ballots will be counted, recounted, and disputed by journalists and scholars for decades to come.

This does not necessarily mean his will be a weak administration. Presidents have vast powers at their disposal - not least the power of bully-pulpit persuasion. But the job will test every ounce of Mr. Bush's self-proclaimed uniting skills. When it comes to partisanship, Washington is to Austin as the Atlantic Ocean is to Walden Pond.

"The only way for the next president to be effective is to demonstrate that his loyalty to his party comes after his loyalty to the entire country," says University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former Democratic senator. "For too long the two parties have been fighting each other in a very petty way."

The end of the process does not appear to have made Bush's impending task any easier. The narrow US Supreme Court decision ending any prospect of official Florida hand recounts did finally - finally! - give Bush a victory that he had held in his hands, only to have it snatched away, several times before.

But the ruling was far from definitive. Several of its dissents were extraordinarily bitter in tone. To see the highest court in the land as split as a Florida canvassing board - and evidently struggling to find a solution to an almost insoluble problem - could well embolden Democratic critics for years to come.

After Watergate ended with President Nixon's resignation, many Americans had a feeling that the political system had, to a certain extent, worked. After the Long Election, many may feel that the system simply survived. Even on the part of many of Bush's supporters there is a feeling less of triumph than relief.

"By ruling in a way that will long be seen as partisan," the Supreme Court did not help Bush's chances of being seen as a legitimate winner, says William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Voters are likely to rally around the president-elect in the days to come. That is a common post-election phenomenon in America. His poll numbers will rise, the choosing of his Cabinet will seem a comfortable and familiar ritual.

The trouble may start with his actual governing. It is an open secret in Washington that many prominent Democrats were not sad to see Vice President Gore lose. This is not so much because they had little personal investment in their candidate - although that point is true. It is because they are looking past this election to 2002 and 2004.

Democrats now have an issue which they can pound as much, or as little, as they would like. Anytime Bush pushes an issue they do not favor, such as the partial privatization of Social Security, they can attack not just on the merits of the proposal but on the legitimacy of the proposer.

They may not perceive it to be in their interest to return any gestures of accommodation by the new president.

Democrats "will be doing precisely what Newt Gingrich did in the early 1990s - that is, maintaining a distinct and often hostile minority party identity, in the hope that this will create a new majority party," says University of Maryland political scientist Eric Uslaner, who writes on Congress.

The media - always eager for controversy - are likely to be willing players in this game. Imagine the first press conference of President Bush, and how many questions will revolve around the basic theme of, "Did you win, really now?"

In one sense, Bush will have an easy act to follow. Polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of President Clinton as a person, presumably due to the Monica Lewinsky matter and the many other legal morasses his administration became mired in.

But policy is a different matter. Mr. Clinton gets credit from the public for helping balance the federal budget, while reforming welfare and presiding over years of peace and unprecedented prosperity. His job-performance rating - as opposed to his personal one - remains high.

The challenge for Bush will be to surmount all this and find issues and goals that resonate with a wide spectrum of American voters. This is not necessarily the same as being bipartisan, which deals more strictly with reaching out to another party's politicians.

What the apparent new president-elect will need to do is reach out to the population at large, and hope for enough success that politicians will be forced to follow. That is a technique of governance Clinton worked to perfection, with small proposals aimed at improving life - such as hiring more teachers.

Only time will tell if Bush is similarly nimble. "I think Bush is going to have a lot of trouble," says Kevin Phillips, a former GOP adviser and an author.

Gail Russell Chaddock and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.