Comment: Who Governs?

Whoever wins, this will be the election that was stolen. Republicans have played the nastier hardball, throwing around phrases like coup d'etat, questioning the very legitimacy of courts to decide questions of law, intimidating vote counters, and shamelessly using election officials as partisan hacks. Thus energized, they are certain that George W. Bush truly won and Al Gore would be a usurper.

For his part, the vice president has a fair case that, if voters' true intent can be measured, Florida is his. Gore also won the popular vote by more than 300,000. In our system, that doesn't count, but it does lend legitimacy. If Gore is denied the presidency, it will be because (1) the media created the premature sense that Bush was the rightful winner, (2) the Bush campaign effectively ran the clock on Gore, and (3) there was no clean way for the courts or anyone else to render a definitive ruling.

But whoever takes office January 20, the opposition will insist that the wrong president was inaugurated. A fine mess.

The immediate consequences will be more serious for Democrats and liberals than for the republic and Republicans. If Bush takes office, having run one of the dirtiest overtime periods in memory, he will revert to his campaign pretense as bipartisan healer. He will cultivate nominal Democrats like Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, the Blue Dog caucus, and New Democrats soft on such Republican favorites as vouchers and privatization. With their collaboration, Bush could soon look like a centrist Dwight Eisenhower or, worse, a Republican Bill Clinton. The press, obsessed with the idea that the public is sick of partisan squabbling, will fall for it. The only thing that can prevent this outcome is Bush's own sheer stupidity or a serious economic or foreign-policy crisis. But Ronald Reagan, if anything, was an even dimmer bulb, and Jim Baker and company made him just glow.

By contrast, in the unlikely event that Gore is inaugurated, the Republicans will never forgive him. Newt Gingrich's assault on Clinton will look gentle. Fierce partisan division will produce legislative deadlock and pressure on Gore to move right if he's to claim some shred of accomplishment. Republican internal divisions will stay under wraps in the face of a president they regard as a pretender.

Are there lessons here?

For one, unity beats disunity. The Democrats would not be in this fix if their flawed standard-bearer had run a more effective campaign and if two million sometime Democrats hadn't defected to Ralph Nader.

For another, the New Democrat faction of the party is pure Trojan horse. A decade ago, the theorists of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) were insisting that identification with labor unions and minorities was costing Democrats the presidency. This time, the unions and the NAACP carried every swing state they targeted--and on the basis of liberal pocketbook issues. What earthly good did the DLC do?

If Bush takes office, labor, now resurgent as both a political force and source of workplace betterment, will be the Republicans' number one target. Liberals can only dig in, plant a flag, and look forward to 2002, taking some comfort from the fact that newly elected presidents usually lose congressional seats in the first midterm election.

In the meantime, the Democrats need to stand for something and fight for it. The worst thing they could possibly do, in the face of an election steal, would be to follow the pundits' advice and be tamely bipartisan. Whoever takes office, the coming era will necessarily be fractious, unless liberals just choose to be rolled. The Republic will endure. ¤

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