Election's winner likely a loser, too
By MARY JACOBY and JOHN BALZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000
WASHINGTON -- It is perhaps fitting that the 2000 presidential election has not produced a winner. For no matter how it is resolved, there might only be losers.
If Texas Gov. George W. Bush ascends to the White House, controversy will cloud his victory, and Democrats in Congress might have little incentive to do anything but make his life miserable.
If Vice President Al Gore wins by challenging the Florida results in court, however, he will anger many members of his party who believe he could be putting U.S. politics on a slippery slope to future instability.
Neither man, meanwhile, will have an easy time dealing with a narrowly divided and hard-to-control Congress, where GOP leaders will have about as much command as a toddler trying to hold the leash of a big, rambunctious dog.
"The potential problem for (Bush or Gore) is that a significant number of people will regard his occupation of the White House not just as undesirable but illegitimate," said David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
Primed by more than a decade of partisan warfare, Congress will be ready to devour the next president, he said. "The opposite party gets justification for waging the equivalent of guerrilla warfare against the president, partly on the basis that he doesn't deserve to be there," Rohde said.
Or, as Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, put it: "Governing is going to be near impossible."
Aides to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say that if the Florida recount shows Bush ahead, Gore should accept the results and move on.
But congressional Democrats have a vested interest in seeing Bush as president, analysts say. They are already within spitting distance of winning a majority in Congress. And because the party that does not hold the White House traditionally picks up seats in midterm elections, a Bush presidency could boost Democrats' attempts to win a majority in 2002.
For next year, though, it appears Republicans will have a majority of 221 seats in the House, Democrats will have 212 seats and independents will hold two, pending recounts. In the Senate the post-election split is 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and one unresolved election in Washington state.
Privately, Democratic aides in Congress have nothing but disdain for the idea of a Gore legal challenge. But because speaking their mind could anger Gore, who still could become president, few are willing to speak their minds publicly.
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., was one of the few Democrats speaking out. He told the Associated Press, "I would urge both Al Gore and George Bush to think of the country -- the continuity of government, its stability -- and avoid any collateral attacks on the process."
However, by Friday afternoon Torricelli was mum on the subject. A spokesman said the senator felt his words had been taken out of context.
Indeed, Gore has signaled that he will not give up the presidency without a fight. For one thing, his aides are cautioning reporters against concluding that he is leaning against a court battle.
Meanwhile, Gore lawyers are working furiously in Florida to prepare a potential challenge to the ballots in Palm Beach County, which many voters said confused them into punching a hole next to Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan's name when they meant to vote for Gore.
But while it might seem to Gore that he is the rightful winner, he might be better off politically accepting the outcome.
"Gore's choice is between being a gracious loser or a sore winner," said John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "If he were to walk away at a very early stage I think he would get applause all around for statesmanship, and that would put him in a good position for the next election as the president in exile."
Democrats also fear that Bush will retaliate with challenges to the close election, opening a can of worms that cannot be contained. As evidence, they point to a statement Friday by former Secretary of State James Baker, who is overseeing the Florida recount on Bush's behalf. "What if we insisted on recounts in other states that are very close? For example Wisconsin, Iowa," Baker said. "It is frustrating to lose by a narrow margin. But it happens."
Baker mentioned the 1960 election, in which Richard Nixon declined to challenge John F. Kennedy's narrow victory despite allegations of vote fraud in Texas, Illinois and other battleground states.
Moreover, Republican election lawyer Bill Canfield said a Gore legal challenge would set a terrible precedent: "It basically says to America, any vote you cast can be challenged by lawyers."
Canfield said votes are rarely counted with precision in elections, often because of antiquated equipment. "Of all the recounts I've done, there have always, always been human errors," he said.
But Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Gore should fight.
"The Republicans are lying," he said. "They are trying to manipulate the public. They are scared of the rule of law. They understand that if the rule of law is followed, Al Gore will win the electoral votes and become president. . . . They are trying to steal this election."
Civil suits have been filed in Florida state courts. Deutsch said they should be appealed to the Supreme Court if necessary. "If he enters the White House as an illegitimate president then we have a constitutional crisis," Deutsch said of Bush.
On the other hand, Republicans argue that Gore will have the harder time dealing with Congress because he has failed to build strong friendships there, even within his party.
"Clinton was always gracious. He made you feel like you were at least friends," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach. "Gore comes off as someone who makes you think he doesn't agree with you on anything."
Adding fuel to the fire of this strange election is that Bush has apparently lost the popular vote to Gore, giving critics more ammunition to argue that the Texan is a pretender.
And yet Gore can claim no mandate, either. He won more popular votes than Bush but did not take more than 50 percent.
"Whoever is president is going to have to be like a British coalition government and have members of the opposite party in his Cabinet," said Fred Graefe, a Democratic lobbyist who is close to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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