The most important question arising from the extraordinary
presidential election of 2000 may not be who won, but whether the
nation will accept that the eventual winner was fairly chosen.
A president pursued by doubts about his legitimacy would be
hobbled in dealings with Congress, foreign governments, and even
(perhaps especially) the press. If the situation festers, it could
undermine one of America's proudest boasts: that it is a nation of
orderly laws, not capricious men.
Yet it now appears an election in which 100 million votes were
cast could be decided by about a condo's-worth of Floridians.
In such a situation, opportunities for missteps by both Al Gore
and George W. Bush and their followers abound.
The manner in which Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush handle the situation
over the next several days could be critical.
"This is a once-in-a-century cluster of events that pose an
extraordinary challenge to our political class and our political
leaders: to manage a situation that has a potential to do serious
damage to ... our constitutional system," says Thomas Mann, a
government-studies scholar at the Brookings Institution in
The last time America faced such an uncertain outcome in its
presidential race, in 1960, Richard Nixon conceded to John F.
Kennedy and slipped gently into the night - even though he was
convinced that fraud had made the difference. Nixon lost to Kennedy
by only 0.2 percent of the vote.
Although Nixon was not a man known for giving political quarter,
he quickly forswore any court challenge.
In later years, he said he was both worried about the nation and
his own image. It proved a shrewd move: a "sore loser" tag might
have made his 1968 comeback victory impossible.
For his part, JFK acknowledged the slimness of his margin by
appointing Republicans as secretary of Defense and secretary of the
Treasury. Such a show of bipartisanship might help soothe lingering
bitterness from this year's vote.
If George W. Bush wins, for instance, "he might be smart to
appoint some Democrats to the Cabinet," says Thomas Cronin, a
presidential scholar and president of Whitman College in Walla,
The electoral effect
The relationship between the popular vote totals and the
election's possible outcome is one factor creating the current
At time of writing it appeared possible that the candidate who
received the most ballots will not be the one who sits in the Oval
Office come January, thanks to the arcane US Electoral College
Americans schooled on the virtues of majority rule might find
this difficult to accept. …