Gavin Esler: An accidental president or the plaintiff president?

The more sophisticated observers say whichever party wins may wish it had not won after all
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The Independent Online

If Al Gore had devoted the same passion to winning the presidential election over the past year as he has shown in his attempt to win a recount by hand in Florida over the past week, he would have destroyed George W Bush months ago. Under the barrage of lawsuits from the Gore camp, Governor Bush has begun to look rattled and out of his depth. If this turns out to be the first crisis of the Bush presidency, then he is not handling it with the required presidential grace under pressure.

If Al Gore had devoted the same passion to winning the presidential election over the past year as he has shown in his attempt to win a recount by hand in Florida over the past week, he would have destroyed George W Bush months ago. Under the barrage of lawsuits from the Gore camp, Governor Bush has begun to look rattled and out of his depth. If this turns out to be the first crisis of the Bush presidency, then he is not handling it with the required presidential grace under pressure.

No one, of course, has the faintest idea whether Bush will finally come out on top. The choice appears to be between the Accidental President and the Plaintiff President, and neither of them particularly inspire confidence. But whoever wins, the problems of actually governing, or of working with Congress and of uniting the American people, will be formidable.

Bush, if he triumphs despite failing to win a majority in the popular vote, will look like the Accidental President, a man who stumbled into power thanks to one of the eccentricities of the Constitution, the Electoral College, and whose slender qualifications for the job were summed up in July by President Bill Clinton: "I've been Governor of Texas. My daddy was president. I own a baseball team."

There is a slim chance that we might end up instead with the Plaintiff President, Al Gore, who appears to be content to win in the courts what he has not been able to win convincingly in the voting booths. Mr Gore's reliance on sharp-suited lawyers sits uneasily with his image as Proletarian Al, the working man's friend, who throughout the campaign pulled his party to the left. Down in Florida they complain that, thanks to Mr Gore, there are now more lawyers in the Sunshine State than there are alligators, though sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.

There are two views of how the new president - whoever he may be - will govern. The first is the optimistic scenario. Optimists believe that there will be a rallying round the flag, and that like Lincoln after the Civil War, the new president will reach out to the other party and try to bind up the nation's wounds. There is much talk of a Cabinet full of both Democrat and Republicans in a kind of power-sharing arrangement. Well, maybe, but the other view is much more unpleasant.

The pessimists argue that the US is now divided in every way possible - politically, socially, geographically, racially. The new president will hit the ground stumbling and after a brief honeymoon will be derided in the press as a do-nothing and, in Mr Bush's case perhaps, a know-nothing president who cannot work well with Congress and commands little authority at home.

Every transition recently involving a state governor coming to power - Carter, Reagan and Clinton - has proved extremely difficult. Carter never managed to work well with Congress, and found solace in foreign policy when he could achieve little of his domestic programme. Reagan was more successful, cleverly using his popularity to force Congressional Democrats to act to pass his economic programme into law. But Reagan's political successes came only after a miserable first year. Things were so bad in his first few months in office that he was forced to joke about the divisions in his team: "I guess the right hand does not know what the far right hand is doing."

Bill Clinton - despite his image now as the most talented politician of his generation - had similar teething problems. His first year was full of mis-steps and mini-scandals - including the time he had his hair cut by a $200-a-go hairdresser while Air Force One was holding up air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport. The joke then was of Hair Force One.

If Governor Bush becomes president, the pessimists suggest that he will have all the problems that his predecessors suffered in settling down in Washington, in addition, as the Accidental President, to profound problems with establishing his legitimacy. If it is to be President Al Gore, then he may know how to pull the levers of power a little better, but to many Republicans in Washington, Mr Gore epitomises the nasty, competitive, unpleasantly partisan mood that has dominated in the capital in recent years. And the Republicans control Congress.

The more sophisticated political observers here in Washington say, under their breaths, that whichever party wins the White House may end up wishing it had not won after all. Within two years there will be more Congressional elections, and the possibility of a strong voter reaction against the new president - just as there was against Carter, Reagan and Clinton, only much more extreme.

Personally, I tend to side more with the pessimists, but the biggest lesson of this election is that nothing should be taken for granted. Though there are compensations. Earlier this week, I caught a taxi in Virginia. The driver, like much of the country, was listening attentively on his radio to the legal and political wrangling of what is being called Indecision 2000. I asked him what he made of it.

"I am from Afghanistan," the cab driver replied in heavily accented English. "In my country, when we change the government, everybody gets killed." He turned and smiled. "The American way is better." For all its faults, and no matter whether it is to be the Accidental President or the Plaintiff President, the American way is, indeed, better.

 

Gavin Esler is in Washington presenting coverage of the US elections for BBC News 24

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