The victor must earn legitimacy by uniting
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
Let's remember one thing.
Somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to become the next president of the United States. And as long as the result remains up in the air, there's a chance it could be the one you didn't like.
For a little while longer, sure, we can talk about missing ballot boxes and conspiracy theories. We can let the lawyers paw over everything.
But we will have a new president.
Maybe he will have won only by a handful of votes in Florida, out of the entire nation. Maybe he even will have lost the nationwide total, and pulled out a win in the Electoral College.
It doesn't matter.
The model of conduct we should follow here comes from, of all people, Richard Nixon.
In 1960, Nixon, then our vice president, lost to John F. Kennedy by the closest popular vote of the century -- a mere 115,000 votes across the nation. (As of Wednesday afternoon, Gore was leading Bush by about 165,000 votes.)
That 1960 election was so close that a shift of just a few thousand votes in a handful of states would have reversed the whole election. Sound familiar?
The Republicans believed Kennedy and the Democrats had stolen the election. They had evidence of fraud in several states, including the legendary graveyard voting of Chicago.
Nixon took a vacation in Florida and Nassau to think it over, and then returned to Washington on Nov. 19 to announce his decision:
We will not fight any longer, Nixon said. It would take at least a year and a half, and it would paralyze the federal government and the nation.
It is too early to say that Vice President Al Gore ought to follow Nixon's example (or for that matter, that George W. Bush should either). The mere mechanical recount of Florida's ballots could easily produce a new, razor-thin edge in the other direction.
But soon enough, it will be time for one of them to act that way.
And then it will be time for the rest of us to act that way, too.
We like to believe that our elections convey "legitimacy" on the winner. We talk about whether a winner has a "mandate" to carry out his ideas.
In this case, people are complaining about the process, howling about the Electoral College, and alleging all sorts of voter fraud and wrongdoing.
But no system can do much about a tie. And that is more or less what we have -- a tie. No system can hide the fact that our nation was almost perfectly divided between Bush and Gore.
We hate ties. We try to get rid of them in sports, with overtime, extra innings, sudden death. As a last resort, we even are willing to flip a coin.
The tiebreaker here will be a few votes in Palm Beach, or Miami, or Tampa. From that slim picking, a president will be elected.
Some of my Democratic friends say Bush will not be a "legitimate" winner if Gore wins the popular vote but Bush wins our state's electoral votes. But that is not true. If Bush wins the Electoral College, he has won fair and square.
Is it really that much more legitimate, is it that much more of a basis of victory, that Gore got a mere 165,000 extra votes out of 100-million cast, than the fact that Bush assembled a state-by-state majority in the Electoral College?
Now, let's put the shoe on the other foot. The "winning" side also will have to realize that almost exactly half the nation was on the other side. If Bush wins, this will be the third election in a row that the winner failed to get an outright majority, because of third candidates (Perot, Perot, Nader).
He would be no less "legitimate" a president. Yet in the end, true legitimacy is earned, not conferred. We have never more needed a president to reach out to all Americans to rebuild that shared sense of legitimacy -- and more for Americans to respond. The belief that the other party is evil, and must be attacked at all costs, is poisoning us.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
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