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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Winner's Legitimacy at Stake if Procedure Can't Be Agreed On

Outlook: Observers say the candidates need to show leadership as this dilemma progresses, or there could be a lack of support when the outcome is finalized.

November 15, 2000|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A panel of respected party elders should broker a deal to settle the disputed presidential election, a scholar of constitutional law urged Tuesday.

The candidates should drop their legal wrangling, agree on a deadline for vote counting--and accept the results, declared a former Democratic congressman.

And when the last votes have been tallied, the winner should be a gracious bridge-builder or risk a painful price in public support, cautioned a professor of political science.

"The best way out of [the current controversy] is for the candidates to step forward and exercise some leadership," said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "They are not passive observers. They can still be leaders."

As the outcome of the presidential election remained uncertain, independent observers Tuesday offered at least some thoughts on how the nation could escape from a dilemma for which the past offers little guidance.

Political lawsuits, they generally agreed, would not help the winner gain a broad sense of legitimacy from a deeply divided public. Rather, some emphasized, it is critical for Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore to agree on a final procedure and then behave in as conciliatory a manner as possible.

Further, they generally agreed that the candidates' conduct regarding the Florida vote in the coming hours and days could have a powerful effect on the climate that the next president will face in Washington and on his potential to succeed.

"The way out of it is for [Bush and Gore] to agree on a process," said Hamilton, who is now director of the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "And if the loser is able to say that it was fair, it becomes enormously important to the future of the country."

Otherwise, he warned, American politics "is heading for a very poisonous period."

Mediators Could Ease Outcome

Ever since the presidential election failed to reach a clear finale, experts have debated how to achieve an ending that would preserve the winner's legitimacy and seem fair to the public.

If the Florida electoral controversy is not settled quickly, one idea Tuesday was for Republican Bush and Democrat Gore to cooperate with a panel of mediators selected from the senior ranks of their own parties, individuals not identified with the heated partisanship of recent years.

Possible mediators would include such individuals as former Presidents Carter and Ford and former Sens. Sam Nunn and Howard H. Baker Jr., said Gordon Silverstein, a scholar of political science and constitutional law at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

For now, he said, the two sides are like football teams that could not even agree on the meaning of a touchdown, much less a way to complete the game.

"The only way out of this is to come up with some kind of structure that both sides agree to," Silverstein said.

Legal Concerns Should Not Be an Issue

Legal jousting, he continued, will confer little legitimacy on the ultimate winner. Rather, victory will have far more meaning if it follows a clear-cut agreement by the two sides on how to resolve the electoral dilemma: "This has to be a negotiated settlement," he said. "It has to be a political settlement, not a legal settlement."

Some of those interviewed Tuesday also insisted that public acceptance of the outcome would depend on a sense that the vote count in Florida has been fair and accurate--even if it takes longer to complete. Such a count, they said, should then be endorsed by the winning and losing sides.

"You've got to get the vote straight," noted James McGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who said he hopes the election dispute will spark a new "spirit of reform" aimed at imperfections in America's electoral system. "The memory of this thing will depend on whether everybody's vote was counted and the vote was clarified."

"We've got to have some patience and wait until the votes are counted," agreed Ann Crigler, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "Then whoever has not won needs to have the opportunity to save face and gracefully back down."

The effort to create a sense of legitimacy in the dispute's outcome must include the loser, observers said, or the winner will lack the aura of legitimacy that Americans expect in an effective commander in chief.

"How does the next president solve this big problem of this cloud hanging over his legitimacy?" asked Kenneth L. Karst, professor emeritus of constitutional law at UCLA. The answer, he said, is that "the loser could go on national television and ask people to accept the winner as the president."

The matter of getting a final result that both sides accept is important for reasons that go beyond the election's outcome and to the heart of the next president's ability to govern effectively, scholars maintained.

The longer the conflict drags on, the more it will stoke divisive, partisan flames and divert energy from finding political compromises on major issues, such as health care, said Richard Brody, a political scientist at Stanford University.

"The thing that will make it credible is the fact that both sides support it publicly," he said of the vote outcome. "If the candidates can agree on a procedure, presumably that is the beginning of legitimacy."

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