Precinct by precinct, ballot box by ballot box, voting form by voting form, it's Florida or bust

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The Independent US

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Click here for BRIEFING

A paradox wrapped in a mystery and shrouded by an enigma. A variant of Churchill's famous pronouncement on the old Soviet Union?

No, simply an accurate description of this extraordinary American election, closer than the 1960 cliffhanger in which John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by 0.17 per cent of the vote, the first since 1888 in which (assuming George Bush wins the White House) the candidate who loses the popular vote becomes President, an election in which the traditional psephological map of the US will have to be partly redrawn.

First the paradox. Who would have imagined in this electronic age of pushbutton focus groups, instant projections and polling raised to a science equivalent to astro- physics, that proceedings would have slowed to the snail's pace of, of all things, a recount.

Recounts to determine whether a Lib-Dem has captured a safe Tory seat in the shires have a certain quaintness. They do not, when the office is that of the most powerful man in the world. Yet in Florida, ground zero of Election 2000, that is exactly what will happen: precinct by precinct, ballot box by ballot box, voting form by voting form.

And paradox in a paradox, the experts have been separately confounded. Before the election, it was fashionable to speculate that if anyone would repeat the dubious feat of Benjamin Harrison 112 years ago, it was likely to be Al Gore, collecting enough narrow victories in states carrying large numbers of electoral college votes to overcome George Bush who had piled up huge majorities in states he was certain to win.

Yet the reverse may be about to happen. Harrison's fellow Republican Bush, assuming overseas Floridian voters behave as expected and no irregularities are discovered, will be the beneficiary of this quirk of America's oft-overlooked indirect electoral system.

Poor Al Gore will have to take his 49 percent plurality - a share greater than won by any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 - back to Carthage, Tennessee and ponder his future.

The much-maligned polls which consistently gave the Texas Governor a statistically insignificant lead, have got it wrong. Otherwise, they have performed excellently, predicting a razor-close race, pinpointing Florida as the fulcrum of the contest, and providing a detailed picture of that restless, yet relatively contented soul, the average US voter.

So to the mystery. What emerges from this election is a country divided, but not divided. Glance at the voting returns, and political America seems split into two almost equal camps of Republicans and Democrats. This is not only in the unresolved competition for the White House, but in the House of Representatives and Senate which the Republicans will retain with threadbare majorities, in neither chamber sufficient to legislate without co-operation across the aisle. But here politics on the ground and politics in Washington diverge. The lesson of the exit polls is that many old political litmus tests no longer operate. Not all, of course. Union members still tend to be Democrats, except when, like millions of other Americans, they happen to be gun owners, which tugs them towards the Republican camp.

Traditional divisions by religion and age have also faded. If George Bush carries Florida it will be not least because more seniors than expected have put aside the touted fears for their pensions under the Bush social security reform plans, and voted Republican.

Such are the confused politics of contentment, when no great crisis threatens and a sense of prosperity and well-being allows one to concentrate on less important things, and ponder revenge on Bill Clinton for his personal moral failings.

That helps explain why familiar state voting patterns no longer hold, why heavily unionised and poor West Virginia went Republican, why Al Gore became the first Presidential contender since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his own state, and why the Democrats couldn't hang on to Mr Clinton's Arkansas.

But this relatively harmless confusion is not apparent on Capitol Hill, where in the House, Republican and the Democrat animosity has begun to permeate the previously more civilised corridors of the Senate.

The last Congress has been singularly unproductive and nasty, in part because of the rivalry between Mr Clinton and the Republicans who failed to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky affair and loathe him because of that failure.

Then to the enigma: the future nature of the Presidency. The deadlock on Tuesday was a further symptom of the secular decline of the American Presidency. Since the 1930s, the role has moved, from saviour of the nation under Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the great Depression and in the Second World War, to the "imperial" presidency of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, which came to grief over Vietnam, then Watergate.

For the last two decades, the pendulum has been swinging from the executive to the legislative branch. On the international stage, a President retains his aura and most of his freedom to maneouvre.

At home, his powers are more limited, and the prestige of the office has been battered by two impeachment processes. Messrs Bush and Gore may have floated their grand designs; but a willing Congress is essential for even a fraction of these ambitions to enter the statute book.

One day, the balance of power on Pennsylvania Avenue will tilt back to the white mansion. But the Presidents America remembers as great - Washington, Lincoln, and FDR - were forged by war, civil war and social crisis. Neither George W Bush nor Al Gore is likely to join their number.

The lesson of history is that, in time of peace, the Presidency simply matters less. That may also be the enduring lesson of Election 2000.