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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Vote Fight Hits the Courts

Florida Sets Deadline as GOP Suit to Stop Recount Is Rejected

An Even Tougher Battle May Await Next President

Outlook: Partisan bitterness from messy vote may pose policy roadblocks and demand reconciliation.

November 14, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the accusations and lawsuits proliferate in Florida, the struggle over last week's election results may have already reached a level that dangerously weakens whoever finally wins the White House, analysts in both parties say.

Both Republican nominee George W. Bush and his Democratic rival, Al Gore, hoped that this election would allow them to quell the partisan hostilities that have immobilized Washington for much of President Clinton's two terms and reached an especially toxic level since his impeachment trial. Instead, the battle over Florida's 25 electoral votes has thrown new fuel on the smoldering resentment between the parties.

"It's really as if a whole new natural gas pipeline was put in," said Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas-based consultant who works with both parties. "The flame is burning very hot right now."

If Texas Gov. Bush is declared the Florida winner and thus claims the White House, most Democrats are likely to believe he won only because many ballots intended for Gore were not counted. That conclusion will only deepen if Florida's Republican secretary of state succeeds in cutting off manual recounts of the ballots after 5 p.m. EST today.

If recounts proceed and Vice President Gore edges ahead to win Florida and the presidency, Republicans will surely think the election has been stolen--a sentiment conservatives are already expressing. Either way, the losing side in one of the closest elections in U.S. history is likely to think the winners cheated to take the prize.

"I have great doubts as to whether at this point any result can be seen as legitimate by both sides," historian Alan Brinkley said. "I'm not sure either Democrats or Republicans should really want their guy to win under these circumstances."

Extra Efforts to Cross Party Lines

That shadow of illegitimacy will complicate enormously the challenge facing the next president, who would already be tested by the virtually even split between the parties in Congress and the lack of a clear public preference in the contest for the White House. Now, as the legal and political battles intensify, the breach the next president will need to close is steadily widening.

As a result, many observers already are calling on the eventual winner to make extraordinary efforts to reach across party lines. While insiders see the prospect of a full-fledged bipartisan coalition government as remote, top-level aides in both camps privately acknowledge a need to appoint Cabinet members from the opposition party.

And key figures on each side say that whoever wins may have to proceed more cautiously in advancing his agenda than he anticipated--and emphasize ideas with the greatest prospect of attracting support across the aisle.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, said that if Bush wins, he will need to pursue "incremental, sensible, conservative governance."

Referring to Bush's proposal to slash taxes by $1.3 trillion over the next decade, Dreier said, "To assume that his entire tax package is going to be passed through both houses of Congress without modification would be inaccurate."

Similarly, a senior Gore advisor said that if the vice president ultimately wins, "you would expect that he would do things that, from the start, would be clearly bipartisan in nature, including Republican Cabinet appointees and initiatives that are likely to gain bipartisan support rather than ones that are likely to be divisive."

Others say that the winner may also have to build bridges to the loser--who could make things much more difficult for the eventual victor by choosing to publicly portray the final result as tainted. Still, that reconciliation process is likely to face natural limits--most obviously the desire of the loser to keep open his options for a rematch in 2004. And that means the winner will face the primary burden of healing the wounds of a fight that has kept raging after the final bell.

"It is going to be a tremendous communications challenge for the winner," one top Bush aide said.

So far, neither campaign is worrying much about repairing that damage. The camps are focused on winning--almost at whatever cost.

Intriguingly, key operatives in both parties are focusing on one idea as the best opportunity to increase the legitimacy of the results: recounting by hand the totals across the entire state of Florida. Privately, Gore aides say they are considering an offer in which they would rule out further legal challenges in Palm Beach or elsewhere if the Bush campaign agreed to a manual recount of the entire state.

Still, even a statewide recount wouldn't satisfy all the contestants. On the right, conservatives believe any further recounts amount to a Democratic effort to win in the courts what they could not win at the ballot box.

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