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The President's Legitimacy

The eventual victor will have the same constitutional powers as if he had won with 500 electoral votes.

November 19, 2000

A lot has been said during the controversy over the Florida vote count about making sure the people's will is respected. But no one looking at the overall national results of the 2000 election can assert with authority just what the will of Americans was as they voted for president and members of Congress.

The popular and electoral vote totals for George W. Bush and Al Gore will be among the closest in our history, no matter what the Florida Supreme Court ultimately rules on hand-counting of ballots. And Republicans will control the U.S. House of Representatives by the thinnest of margins, while the Senate--where one race is still undecided--could be split 50-50. Partisan spinmeisters will infer from these numbers whatever serves their purposes. Others will be hard put to discern in them any mandate that this year's victors can claim.

The failure of either party to dominate the next Congress and the dispute over the Florida vote count have produced the expectable predictions that legislative gridlock and prolonged political guerrilla warfare lie ahead. We don't think so. Whatever Americans may have voted for, or against, they did not intend that their government be paralyzed. Another congressional election will come in two years. Our guess is that voters won't be kind to any in Congress who show they prefer waging ideological battles to dealing with the nation's necessary business.

The Florida vote count has produced something unique. But it will finally be resolved in accordance with proper constitutional, statutory and judicial processes. Approximately half the nation's voters will have wished for a different winner. The greater part of that half will calmly accept the result.

It would be a good idea at the same time to forget all the loose talk about how the Florida vote controversy threatens to diminish the next president's "legitimacy." That's not how the system works. The next president will have exactly the same constitutional powers as if he had swept into office with 500 electoral votes and a popular plurality of many millions. The question that matters is how skillfully he can establish his authority and show he can lead.

Americans can safely forget about all the expensive promises made during the campaign. The next president, of necessity if not by inclination, must govern from the center to get things done. That means mustering bipartisan coalitions in Congress to deal with those issues that Americans agree matter most to them: keeping the economy strong, improving education and health care, shoring up Social Security, providing some tax relief. Our political system relies on pragmatic compromises to get most things done. This year's election all but precludes other options.

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