What Now?

Alan Brinkley is Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and the author most recently of Liberalism and Its Discontents (click here to buy it). Michael McConnell is the Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Utah. Slate asked them to keep a running commentary on the presidential endgame.

As we wait for the decisions of the Florida Supreme Court and of the hearing on the Seminole County absentee ballots—which seem to be the last remaining obstacles to the election of Bush—it might be worth looking forward to what lies ahead for Bush should he become president.

Needless to say, the battle over this election has created tremendous problems of legitimacy for either candidate, but particular problems for Bush. It is now clear that he will have lost the popular vote by 300,000 votes or more. It is clear to everyone who looks honestly at Florida that he would have lost that state as well were it not for problems in ballot design and Votamatic machines. Most Republicans will happily overlook those annoying facts (just as most Democrats would happily overlook Gore’s selective recounts should he prevail). But many people will always look at Bush and see a man who won by a fluke—who was elected but not chosen.

Even so, Bush has some significant strengths if he is able to use them. Few people give him much credit for intelligence; many people doubt he knows enough to be president. It would not take much (just as it didn’t take much in the debates) for him to exceed expectations. Bush also has the kind of unthreatening, genial public personality that could win over a lot of people—as he demonstrated in his awkward but generally gracious 60 Minutes interview this week and in his occasional flyby sound bites. And he premised his campaign, of course, on ending the bitter partisanship in Washington and working across party lines. That is precisely what he will need to do in this political environment if he wants to accomplish anything at all as president.

But will his party let him do it? That seems unlikely at the moment. With friends like Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, who needs enemies? Lott has already set up a confrontation with the Democratic leadership over how to organize a 50-50 Senate; and while Tom Daschle’s proposal for absolute equity was never a realistic one, a Republican leader interested in creating a workable environment for a new Republican president would have made at least some gestures toward conciliation. Lott made none and seems unlikely to do so. The House is even worse. DeLay is already leading an effort to renege on the earlier GOP budget agreement with the White House on education spending and is talking about a government shutdown if Bill Clinton doesn’t sign a continuing resolution that freezes the budget—not just until after the inauguration, but for the entire fiscal year. It’s hard to imagine a scenario more destructive to a new Republican presidency than a bitter showdown on the eve of the inauguration over cutting education spending—a losing issue for the Republicans if there ever was one, and a particularly losing issue for a new president who seemed at times to be campaigning almost exclusively out of elementary-school classrooms.

Are there more reasonable figures in Congress capable of stopping this lunacy? Dennis Hastert (whom DeLay claims to support, but whom he refers to dismissively as “Denny,” and not as “the speaker”) seems a true cipher, helpless in face of the right-wing zealots. The Republican moderates in the House have not shown themselves to be numerous enough or powerful enough to affect their party’s decisions and have also not yet demonstrated enough strength to break with the leadership when it careens down its self-destructive paths.

And what about the putative new president? Can he control these so-called allies? Granted, the uncertainty about the election has made it more difficult for Bush to assert any real authority over the Republicans in Congress. But at least someone in his circle should be aware of the political disaster that lies around the corner if the Lott-DeLay strategy proceeds much further. That Bush has done nothing (or at least nothing effective or visible) to defuse this situation does not inspire confidence in his willingness or ability to rein in the excesses of his fellow Republicans on the Hill. He will have enough trouble with embittered Democrats without having to do battle with his own party; and of course if he goes along with the congressional leadership, he will make his own circumstances even worse.

Finally, a note about the Seminole County case. There probably is a legal problem in election officials having permitted Republicans to fill in missing information on absentee ballots without allowing Democrats to do the same (although it is not entirely clear to me that there were Democrats prepared to do the same). But surely that cannot justify throwing out thousands of ballots from voters who were themselves entirely innocent and who received ballots on which they were free to vote for anyone they chose. I admit it would be gratifying to listen to the Republican outrage about not counting ballots if the decision were to go against them—given their absolute and unyielding opposition to counting the ballots Gore wanted counted. But it would, nevertheless, be a travesty for this election to be decided for Gore through the very tactics that he has so strenuously opposed throughout this controversy. (He acted very unwisely yesterday in seeming to align himself with the plaintiffs in the Seminole suit.) In any case, the legislature would surely step in to overrule any such decision—as it may do anyway—setting up a possible battle in Congress that Gore would almost certainly lose.