When George W. Bush spokesman James A. Baker III termed the fight over the Florida vote recount "a black mark on our democracy," he couldn't have been more wrong. At the time he said it on Sunday, Bush was ahead in Florida by a mere 288 votes, and of course the full recount, required by Florida law, is in order, as a federal judge ruled Monday.
Anyway, since when is political tumult and democracy a bad mix? Never in our recent history has the vitality of our democracy been on such splendid display, and it's disheartening that there are so many frightened politicians and pundits panicked by this whiff of controversy.
What's wrong with a bit of electoral chaos and rancor? The post-electoral debate over a rare photo finish is just the stuff that made this country great. People should be outraged if their votes were improperly counted--the founding fathers fought duels over less.
We have lectured the world about the importance of fair elections, and we cannot get away with hiding the imperfections of our own system. Not so imperfect as to require international observers for a full-scale investigation under UN supervision, yet controversial enough to fully engage the public. An election that once threatened to be boring beyond belief has turned into a cliffhanger that is now more interesting than reality-based TV entertainment. Indeed, it is reality-based TV entertainment.
Never since John F. Kennedy eked out a suspicious victory over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 has the proverbial man-in-the-street been so caught up on the nuances of the electoral process. People who didn't even realize we had an electoral college are now experts on it. But instead of celebrating an election that people are finally excited about, driving home the lesson for this and future generations that every vote counts, the pundits are beside themselves with despair.
What hypocrites. They love every moment of increased media exposure for themselves, while darkly warning of the danger to our system. Their fears are nonsense. What is being demonstrated is that the system works: Recounts, court challenges, partisan differences are a healthy response to an election too close to call.
The fear-mongers hold out two depressing scenarios, one being that the people will lose faith in the electoral process, and the other that whoever wins the election will be weakened for lack of a mandate.
As to the former, the electoral process has never seemed more vital; some who voted for Ralph Nader may be second-guessing their choices, and states such as Florida and Oregon with primitive voting systems will no doubt come into the modern age, but apathy has been routed, and next time around, the presidential vote count will be the highest ever.
True, the candidate who finally wins will be weakened. He should be. An election this close hardly provides the winner with a compelling mandate, particularly if it is Bush, who may win the electoral college majority while Al Gore is declared the winner of the popular vote. If that turns out to be the case, Bush ought to tread with caution.
Compromise is good when not only the President is without a mandate but so, too, the House and the Senate because of their razor-thin outcomes. The country has come through eight incredibly prosperous and relatively peaceful years, so why the rush to march down some new uncharted course? Later for privatizing Social Security, a huge tax cut for the super-rich and a $160-billion missile defense system--three mad components of the core Republican program.
As for the Democrats, with or without Gore as President, it will be the season for nothing more ambitious than damage control. With Gore, the main weapon of reason would not be bold new programs that Congress would ignore, but rather the threat of a veto to stop Republican mischief. Without Gore, the responsibility will fall on the Democratic minority in both branches of Congress to engage in a principled holding action preparing for a congressional majority in 2002.
Odds are that Bush will be the President presiding over a nation that, by a clear margin in the popular vote, rejected him for Gore. If Bush wins the office, his challenge will be to prove that the moderate face he presented during the election is truly his. If it isn't, and he attempts to be a hero to the right wing of his party, he will wreck the GOP. Clearly, future political power resides with the vibrant big cities and modern suburbs, the sophisticated hot spots of the new economy, which went for Gore, and not the backwater rural outposts that turned out to be Bush country largely because men remain obsessed with their guns.