The Washington Times

The conventional pre-election wisdom this year, to which I made a small contribution in this space, has held that the losing party in 2000 was going to be in something of a crisis – demoralized, divided over the causes of its loss, uncertain about how to appeal to a majority of voters, and in need of serious rethinking across a broad range of issues.

That was then. Now, it seems quite clear that the losing party is going to regard itself as having had the election stolen from its candidate. We have heard numerous calls in the past seven days for statesmanship and restraint. History is indeed watching, and those judged to have taken a difficult situation and made it worse, thereby risking permanent harm to the republic, are going to be judged harshly.

But that said, the republic is probably going to survive even this, and alas, this likelihood is known to all the players. In those circumstances, restraint and statesmanship begin to look like surrender, or at least, unilateral disarmament. There is no logical point at which one party should restrain itself in the absence of guarantees of restraint by the other. Yet neither party really trusts any such guarantee.

To me, it seems plainly unfair to conduct a hand recount in three heavily Democratic counties only. Given that such “recounting” is actually an exercise not in tallying but in scrutinizing ballots rejected by a machine to see if they can be counted after all – in effect, a vote hunt among disqualified ballots – such an exercise ought to take place statewide. To this argument, some Democrats have responded that Republicans had their chance to ask for hand recounts in “their” counties within 72 hours, but didn’t: Nanna-nanna-boo-boo. (Although it’s not clear that the only way to get a hand recount is for one of the candidates to ask; it’s a perfectly plausible reading of Florida election law that a county canvassing board can decide on its own to undertake such a count, without a request.)

But the upshot of all this is that we are apt to spend the next four years nursing wounds and grudges from this election. Anyone expecting great gestures of magnanimity in the aftermath is likely to be disappointed. To the victor goes the spoiled – in this case, the wrecked political environment in which to try to do business. To the loser goes the conviction that the winner lacks legitimacy – in other words, that the loser actually won. Hence, the appropriateness, if not indeed the necessity, of trying to foil the usurper at every turn.

Oddly enough, that makes everybody a winner – in the very narrow sense that no one is going to be forced to confront the fact and the consequences of defeat.

A Gore defeat would have made Democrats look hard at the question of how centrist their party is and ought to be. In the reach to the middle, how much of the left gets left behind, and to what effect? Some Democrats initially blamed Ralph Nader for costing them Florida and therefore the election (this was in the few hours before they persuaded themselves that they had won Florida). That strikes me as too easy a reading. Mr. Nader was a symptom of a problem – namely, the Democratic Party’s unresolved balance between the center and the left – not the problem itself. The question, if Democrats are indeed going to become the majority party again, is how to draw the Naderite wing back without losing an equal or greater number of votes in the center.

A Bush defeat would have made Republicans confront the increasingly apparent fact that this is not Ronald Reagan’s America any more. The essential center-right character of the electorate on which Republicans have counted for two decades is now more center than right. Exit polls in this election showed continuing erosion in the percentage of people identifying themselves as conservative. This has not been matched by an uptick in those calling themselves liberal, but rather by migration of voters to the middle. Mr. Bush ran on a mainstream conservative issues agenda. Whether or not he gets a chance to see it succeed or fail in the legislative process, what comes after is a question the party has not yet taken up – and may not now, given the results.

The electorate is as equally divided as it could be. Each party, therefore, has a claim on the mainstream. But neither has a superior claim, nor a clear way to one. And the circumstances this quadrennial are such that neither will find much reason to look for one.