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In Politics, Everything Is Relative

November 15, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail:

Lost track of who's shystering whom and who's recounting what in the disputed Florida election? Worried about being blindsided by ballot-box developments in other disputed states, such as New Mexico, New Hampshire, Iowa and Wisconsin? A physicist would say that understanding is impossible because the situation is chaotic; tiny variations of input make for 100% uncertainty as to output.

Yet if one were to combine physics and power politics, one might gain a better understanding of the ultimate outcome. Start with the obvious: Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state, is not going to pick the next president. Her decision to stop the recount Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m. is not going to be the final word on Florida's balloting; some more powerful judge, or politician, will adjust her decision.

To use a Las Vegas analogy, recent events can be compared to the ball in a roulette wheel. As the ball skitters around the circle, rattling past all the politico-legal players, there's no telling which numbered slot it will settle into. Assuming that the wheel isn't rigged, that's chaos in action. In roulette, the ball comes to rest in one of the 38 numbered slots; in presidential politics, the choices are essentially two: Al Gore or George W. Bush.

Today, the presidency itself is bouncing around in a chaotic manner, but both its general direction and general prospects can be explained by political physics.

If Isaac Newton were alive today, he might apply the principles of gravity he first discovered when the apple fell on his head more than three centuries ago, arguing that the presidency is being pulled into the gravity field of one of the two other megapolitical institutions, either the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress. If Gore becomes president, he will likely owe it to the courts; if Bush prevails, he will owe it to Capitol Hill.

The Supreme Court is involved in just about everything these days; the heavy-hitting lawyers on both sides of the partisan divide will make sure of that. As for Congress, Chapter 1 of Title 3, United States Code, Section 15, gives the House and the Senate the right, if they act jointly, to reject any presidential elector from any state. So it's conceivable, for example, that a Gore slate of electors could be rejected by narrow Republican majorities in both chambers in January, thereby giving the election to Bush.

Would Congress dare to do such a thing? It's happened before; in 1876, a Republican Congress decertified a set of Democratic electors and certified Republican electors instead. After four months of wrangling, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost the popular vote, became president.

But would contemporary Republicans dare to do such a thing? As Albert Einstein might say if he were alive, it all depends. Einstein improved Newtonian physics by observing that everything, including energy, has gravitational pull. That's the essence of his general theory of relativity, E=mc2.

Einstein's theory was proved in 1919, after astronomers showed that the sun's gravity could bend light from other stars. And yet at the same time, the light from those stars bent the sun's light. After that, the idea that "everything's relative" entered the popular imagination; there are no true absolutes because everything affects everything else.

Today in Florida and in Washington, D.C., the politico-legal players--Warren Christopher, James Baker and all the rest--are subject to the great gravitational pull of the court and the Congress. They can have but small effect on the ultimate course of events, but as Einstein proved, even small forces can and must be measured if the calculations are to be correct.

Yet if the presidency is just a bouncing ball, subject to other political forces, large and small, what will become of the next president? Put simply, the next White House occupant will have the pomp of office, but not the power. As a physicist would say, the center of mass in American politics will be somewhere other than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If Gore wins, thanks to his lawyers, then he's not likely ever to escape from their gravitational field, in terms of both politics and policy. And if Bush wins, thanks to a Republican Congress, then he's not likely to escape its gravitational tug.

Americans might want a different choice, but that's not the way things work. Science can explain why something happens, but only politics can change the course of human events.

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