Limbo

As we write (Tuesday, November 21, 3:00 p.m., EST), it is two weeks after Election Day, and still the United States has no president-elect. Perhaps by the time this issue of Commonweal is in your hands, we will-but then again, perhaps we won’t.

Should we worry?

The United States still has a president, who is enjoying his final lap around the track, but certainly able and willing to govern. There is no constitutional crisis. The republic has not crumbled. No rogue nation is causing immediate trouble, and no new wars have broken out. After initial jitters, the stock market goes its erratic way. The rest of the world is having a good laugh at the wildly divergent election practices and ballots of the greatest democratic nation in history. Let them laugh. Americans themselves seem to be calmly observing one of the most remarkable civic lessons in the nation’s history-"not since the eighth grade have I thought about the electoral college," reports a cheerful woman on CNN.

Only TV commentators and campaign apparatchiks are on the verge of hysteria, assuring one another that the American public is demanding closure-now! Not really. (Are the networks preparing the next headline "Constitutional Crisis," for mid-December? With or without a question mark?)

The phrase "permanent campaign" has taken on a new meaning: William Daley (for Gore) and James Baker (for Bush) in Florida should strike terror in the heart of any reformer working to limit national elections to strictly two years!

The candidates-in-limbo, Al Gore and George Bush, have been no more inspiring in the interregnum than during the campaign. Bush’s brooding withdrawal to his Texas ranch, while others make his case, is troubling. Where would he go as president during a real national crisis? Gore’s hyperactive, behind-the-scenes politicking summons an image of the consummate pol, Bill Clinton, but without the ability to win friends and influence people. He has failed, for examle, to speak plainly and promptly about why a recount matters. Neither Bush nor Gore has displayed the qualities Americans like to think of as presidential, but then inauguration day isn’t until January. Perhaps the mantle of office will endow the winner with a tad of charisma.

The Florida Supreme Court will likely have the final say in what must be included in the certified count that will award the state’s twenty-five electoral votes to the winning candidate, and then we will have a president-elect. Appropriate processes and procedures are in place right up to mechanisms, if need be, for choosing the new president in the United States House of Representatives. It only remains for the loser to bow out gracefully and the winner to gird for battle. All of this is cumbersome, but so far none of it is unreasonable or chaotic.

So no, don’t worry-yet.

The real trouble, if trouble there be, will come when the winner takes office. Bush or Gore? Will either have the legitimacy conferred by a decisive choice of the voters-and one that appears to be decisive? If Bush is the next president, he will have won the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. If it is Gore, he will have won both, but the Republicans’ stolen-election rhetoric will poison the well. It will be very tempting during a Gore presidency for congressional Republicans to carry out the Clinton impeachment by other means.

In any case, a Congress almost evenly divided between the two parties will make it hard for either man to carry out his campaign promises, or perhaps even to exercise the most basic activities of government-making judicial appointments, writing budgets, rewriting tax codes, conducting foreign policy, among others.

Is this what Americans voted for-stalemate? That’s not out of the question. The country has lived with stalemate for at least the last six years under Clinton. Arguably the last truly activist government, under Ronald Reagan, left the country with record deficits-hardly an experiment many Americans want to see repeated.

The campaign showed real differences in what each man, if elected president, would do about Social Security, Medicare, school vouchers, and the Supreme Court. Does a vote so close mean that the American public has said, "none of the above"?

One of the luxuries of a functioning democracy in good times may be the choice of not choosing-but it is a perilous choice should circumstances change, as they are bound to.

Published in the 2000-12-01 issue: 
Also by this author
Liberalism & its limits

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