The shining prospect beyond a cloudy election

Moving on from their disquisitions on Florida chads, American commentators are now busy claiming that the close outcome will make effective government impossible.

Over the weekend came warnings that the fellow who prevails in Palm Beach will be a "weaker president", that history books will attach a shameful asterisk to the victor's name and that the close outcomes in the Senate and the House condemn the nation to four years of total gridlock. Larry King summed up the story for his personal electorate, millions of cable viewers, when he concluded with a statesmanly sigh that "we may be ungovernable".

But America, even an America touched by the whim of West Palm Beach, is rarely ungovernable. Presidents, however perilously weak at their terms' outset, almost always have enormous power. This is so whether we speak of this season's stand-off or of past partisan contests. Consider the next inhabitant of the White House. To judge by the current concern, one would imagine him to have a weak mandate. But this is not so. In fact, both Mr Gore with his 49 per cent share of the popular vote and Mr Bush with his 48 per cent can claim to have the support of a much wider swath of America than did President Clinton after his 1992 election. In that year Ross Perot carved away 19 per cent of the vote, leaving Mr Clinton to govern with a feeble 43 per cent.

Yet somehow Mr Clinton seemed to feel quite at home in the White House. He even managed to win re-election after Republicans had won the House in 1994. And recently - at least since November 7 - Mr Clinton's words have come to be treated as though they were uttered somewhere on high.

In other words, Vice-President Gore ought to feel plenty confident in his presidency if he gets it. What is more, a Gallup poll indicates that even eight days into the Florida scrambling, more than half of Americans still have a favourable opinion of him.

And what if Mr Bush wins? He too still enjoys a positive reputation - even a few percentage points higher than Mr Gore's. What is more, as November 7 has already established, a Bush administration, however narrowly elected, may lead an all-Republican government, or at least a Republican Congress and a tied Senate with a Republican vice-president there to break impasses. This is the sort of power modern American politicians have scarcely known. The last time Washington was a one-party town was in the days of Jimmy Carter. Filibuster power alone cannot bring about gridlock.

There are older, more dramatic rebuttals to the "ungovernable" thesis. The first was the screamingly partisan 1800 race, a three-way contest involving a sitting president, the Federalist John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the Republican. Jefferson's Republicans assailed Adams, terming his presidency "one continued tempest of malignant passions". But their fury could not match that of the Federalists, who reviled Jefferson's support of the French Revolution and his quirky Deism.

"Can serious and reflecting men look about," asked a federalist pamphlet, "and doubt that if Jefferson is elected, and the Jacobins get authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin will not be trampled upon and exploded?"

The race was close. But it was the electoral college system of the day - later amended - that made for grand confusion. The college was divided, with 73 votes for Jefferson, 65 for Adams and 73 for Aaron Burr, another Republican.

Only after a bout of wrangling that makes Florida look like a nursery squabble did the House of Representatives select Jefferson over Burr. This conclusion was reached after a full 35 votes, with one legislator voting from his sickbed, transported to Congress for the occasion. Furious Federalists promptly predicted a French-style bloodbath. As Paul Boller, the historian, reports, his opponents labelled Jefferson "President By No Votes".*

Nonetheless, the "usurper president" managed to pull the nation together. In office, Jefferson achieved serious things, such as the abolition of internal taxes and the Louisiana Purchase. He won a second term in a landslide.

Nine decades or so later, Benjamin Harrison did yet more damage to the "ungovernable" thesis. Harrison, who campaigned on a pro-tariff and anti-big-business platform, lost the popular vote to the incumbent, the free-trading Democrat Grover Cleveland. He moved into the White House on the strength of his victory in the electoral college alone - in today's parlance, a recipe for "ungovernability".

Yet after this rough start Harrison too had little trouble morphing into a suitably strong executive. At his inauguration, Harrison sought to conciliate: "We should hold our differing opinions in mutual respect." Then he got down to business, implementing the McKinley Tariff and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts.

More recently, there is the example of John Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy did not achieve many of the goals that he laid out in his famous "100 Days" but he is hardly remembered as a lightweight. His 0.2 per cent victory did not stop him from provoking the Cuban missile crisis, or reaffirming US commitment to West Germany at the Berlin Wall.

Of course, should the current contest stretch into the new year and a House of Representatives "election" melt into litigious chaos, then the country might legitimately begin to be called "ungovernable". Otherwise, this month's ructions are likely to fade. "Here ends the 18th century," concluded one pro-Jefferson observer during the Adams-Burr contest. "The 19th begins with a fine clear morning, wind at SW." Nothing that has happened in American politics so far this month indicates that the same shining prospect cannot obtain for the 21st.

* Presidential Campaigns Paul F.Boller Jr, Oxford University Press 1996

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

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