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Chad Happens

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What the wait is teaching the nation

When we were children, we learned where democracy comes from, how the people came to rule, about the government of the many rather than the government of the few. But what good is that machinery if there is no majority? No one taught us what would happen if there were a tie.

New Mexico has worked this out. If the voters deadlock, the law hands the outcome over to a game of chance: the candidates can flip a coin, draw a card from a deck or play a hand of poker--assuming they can agree. Florida law allows for drawing straws. But this tie is elusive, imperfect as the election that produced it because when you are shuffling through 6 million votes and double-punched ballots and hanging chads and missing postmarks and the whole archaeology of human frailty, every count by machine or by hand yields a different result, each so close as to be all but meaningless. So the combat went hand to hand, both men clawing for every last vote. Ballot boxes were wrapped like presents in crime-scene tape; guards protected overseas ballots around the clock; and both sides all but accused each other of trying to steal the election. And so the only thing we know for certain is that our next President will be born in the margin of error.

We live in overtime now, we work overtime, the clock runs out and we keep on playing, which might explain the public's patience with the candidates' choice not to surrender. Americans forgive ambition; we like grit and persistence, treat them as virtues as long as the cause seems just. An old Republican well into his 70s telephoned an even older Democrat last week in Washington. Both men had flirted with the presidency; one had even survived a primary or two. The Republican asked his old friend, Could you do it? If you were this close, could you turn away? The other guy, now past 80, laughed and said, I couldn't, and neither could you.

And neither could George Bush or Al Gore. It is more our fault than theirs that the race is instant-replay close; neither could be expected to quit while the law lets him think he can win. Bush is a baseball guy; he understands extra innings. But under the rules, he's sure he's the victor; a few foul balls and close calls are just part of the great game. Last week's recounts all put him ahead, even after hundreds of unpostmarked overseas military ballots were thrown out, and the only thing that could change that was a hand recount of three heavily Democratic counties. On what grounds would it have been "grownup" or "statesmanlike" for Bush to have walked off the field?

Gore for his part was taught at his prep school to choose the hard right over the easy wrong, which is a good lesson, assuming it's easy to tell those apart. He knows he won the national popular vote, but under the Constitution, that does not matter. He believes he won Florida as well, but his virtual victory slipped through his hands and broke into tiny pieces, which he was desperately trying to paste together by hand and by law. Was Gore just supposed to concede all over again, with Democrats across the land complaining that the only reason he hadn't won was because of botched ballots, undercounted votes and the blind zeal of secretary of state Katherine Harris, co-chair of Florida's Bush campaign? She did everything she could to delay the hand counts that Florida law allows, and then said that since counties had missed their deadline, the results wouldn't count.

Meanwhile, the campaign replays in screaming miniature, the long race for the White House shrunk to fit in a shoebox. The sharpest, most dangerous legal brains on earth are folded up and stuffed into a three-block stretch of sleepy Tallahassee, borrowing strangers' desks, living on doughnuts, men and women who have negotiated treaties and broken monopolies and saved the dollar and brokered peace in the Middle East. "We win every day. We lose every day," said a top Gore soldier. "This place is totally rigged against us, and yet we are trying to do something no one has ever done before: change a presidential election."

Gore spent the week where he has spent the whole year--in the weeds, spitting out e-mails, plotting every move. His team saw the public relations war sooner, launched the legal war faster. Gore was able to do in extremis what he could not do during his campaign: rally his party, enlist all the ghosts of campaigns past and get them to play together. But if he was tactically shrewd to offer to meet with Bush, drop all the lawsuits and recount ballots across the whole state, not just in heavily Democratic counties, he couldn't resist taking the truth out for a spin. "What is at stake here is more important than who wins the presidency," he said, and talked about that special something we all cherish and pledge allegiance to. "That's what I'm focused on. Not the contest, but our democracy."

As for Bush, who decamped to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, there was no escaping the contradictions. The man who says he trusts the people placed his faith in the machines; he was protesting a law allowing hand counts, having signed one himself in Texas; he trusts the states, not the lawyers, yet he was the first one into federal court to try to halt the hand count. Congressional Republicans seethed that Bush was losing the air war; he seemed to be almost hiding from the reality of what he faced, leaving the fight to Jim Baker and Dick Cheney while he played Greta Garbo. At a lunch for Republican Senators last week, allies were handing out red, white and blue ribbons that read 'TIL GEORGE BUSH GETS JUSTICE, as though he were a political prisoner.

But if Bush prevails, a more serious challenge awaits him. His campaign was built less around what he promised to do than how he would do it. He argued that our politics was broken, "so much anger...so much division," he said, and everything would be better if we just elected him to fix it. Now we find that maybe the public wants it broken, likes it this way, the divisions sanctified by 100 million choices. We are at least two countries, evenly matched, divided by geography and gender and maybe even more by culture and values, one traditional, one tolerant, and we elected a Congress that perfectly represents the split. You can split the Senate in two, but the presidency is one man, indivisible.

Both parties were already trying to imagine down what road lay victory. At this point, what's it worth anyway? "Hollow," says a senior Democrat. The presidency is hard enough without winning it accidentally. With a government so divided, there can be no faking comity; either all sides truly work together, or they sit in their tall cherrywood seats gathering dust until a new army takes their place.


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Cover Date: November 27, 2000

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