Bush Will Have to Build from a Precarious Foundation

Article excerpt

As he recovers from the strain and stress of the longest election in American history, George W. Bush might do well to ponder this possibility: The hardest part of his journey has yet to begin.

He will become president, true. He will be the first Republican chief executive since Dwight Eisenhower to deal with a Congress controlled by his own party.

But some supporters of the defeated Al Gore may believe the new President Bush to be president with an asterisk, someone who won the office on a technicality. And he will take office with the nation's politics as polarized as an electric current - and in the knowledge that Florida's disputed ballots will be counted, recounted, and disputed by journalists and scholars for decades to come.

This does not necessarily mean his will be a weak administration. Presidents have vast powers at their disposal - not least the power of bully-pulpit persuasion. But the job will test every ounce of Mr. Bush's self-proclaimed uniting skills. When it comes to partisanship, Washington is to Austin as the Atlantic Ocean is to Walden Pond.

"The only way for the next president to be effective is to demonstrate that his loyalty to his party comes after his loyalty to the entire country," says University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former Democratic senator. "For too long the two parties have been fighting each other in a very petty way."

The end of the process does not appear to have made Bush's impending task any easier. The narrow US Supreme Court decision ending any prospect of official Florida hand recounts did finally - finally! - give Bush a victory that he had held in his hands, only to have it snatched away, several times before.

But the ruling was far from definitive. Several of its dissents were extraordinarily bitter in tone. To see the highest court in the land as split as a Florida canvassing board - and evidently struggling to find a solution to an almost insoluble problem - could well embolden Democratic critics for years to come.

After Watergate ended with President Nixon's resignation, many Americans had a feeling that the political system had, to a certain extent, worked. After the Long Election, many may feel that the system simply survived. Even on the part of many of Bush's supporters there is a feeling less of triumph than relief.

"By ruling in a way that will long be seen as partisan," the Supreme Court did not help Bush's chances of being seen as a legitimate winner, says William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Voters are likely to rally around the president-elect in the days to come. That is a common post-election phenomenon in America. His poll numbers will rise, the choosing of his Cabinet will seem a comfortable and familiar ritual. …