Whoever claims the supreme prize, there is little mandate for change

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The Independent Online

It ain't over 'till it's over, and at the time of writing, amazingly, it still ain't over. The polls predicted that the US presidential election would be a cliffhanger, and they were right. They were right, too, in suggesting that the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, could tip the outcome away from Al Gore. If the Vice-President loses, Nader votes in a handful of states will have made the difference. They were right, too, in forecasting that all would hinge on Florida. But not even a novelist would have dared venture that this hinge would amount to the 1,200-odd votes - out of almost 6 million - that separate the two candidates in the state of Florida, whose governor Jeb Bush is the brother of the candidate who leads by a minute margin.

It ain't over 'till it's over, and at the time of writing, amazingly, it still ain't over. The polls predicted that the US presidential election would be a cliffhanger, and they were right. They were right, too, in suggesting that the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, could tip the outcome away from Al Gore. If the Vice-President loses, Nader votes in a handful of states will have made the difference. They were right, too, in forecasting that all would hinge on Florida. But not even a novelist would have dared venture that this hinge would amount to the 1,200-odd votes - out of almost 6 million - that separate the two candidates in the state of Florida, whose governor Jeb Bush is the brother of the candidate who leads by a minute margin.

At moments like this, the cumbersome precision of the American constitutional process is a blessing. Imagine, in such an impasse, that transition in Washington followed the British model, whereby power passes instantly, almost brutally, after a general election. Instead, whatever happens, Bill Clinton remains president until 20 January 2001, by which time all argument over the identity of the next president will have long since been resolved.

But whether it is Mr Gore or George W Bush who claims the supreme prize, some points may be made now. The first is that neither man will have much mandate for domestic change. Mr Bush has set out far-reaching proposals on reforming America's welfare system, and wants to push through massive tax cuts. On paper, he would be able to count on tiny Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to push them through.

In practice, however, that would be impossible. Even with a majority, a US president must negotiate with Congress. The wafer-thin size of the future incumbent's majority, and the almost even split on Capitol Hill, makes compromise inevitable. Under Bill Clinton, the previous Congress was ill-tempered and partisan enough, among the least productive of any in decades. Without careful handling and goodwill on both sides, the next could be worse still. That has enormous implications: if a victorious Mr Bush nominated ultra-conservative justices to the Supreme Court, he would have an almighty confirmation battle on his hands, and rightly so.

From an economic viewpoint, the muddled outcome is perhaps no bad thing. Nothing upsets markets more than violent changes of direction; for the reasons listed above, such a prospect is unlikely, whoever wins. The hugely reassuring Alan Greenspan will still be the man who matters most in US economic policy-making. This election has proved that Americans are reasonably content with their lot. Asked to choose between two uninspiring, candidates, they have answered: "Don't know." The confusion is clear from the tangled voting patterns, the results in some states defying all prior conventional political wisdom, and the small but perhaps decisive Nader vote.

In a sense this election is the logical product of the blurring of differences that Bill Clinton has so artfully practised over the past eight years. One wonders how much the personal peccadilloes of the outgoing president weighed upon the outcome. It is astounding that Mr Gore failed to carry both his own state, Tennessee, and Mr Clinton's Arkansas. Voter disapproval of Mr Clinton's personal behaviour is surely one of the reasons, although Mr Gore may still have been unwise to make so little use of the President in his campaign.

The outside world also should not be too alarmed by the unresolved choice. This newspaper has expressed its preference for Mr Gore, as a man of internationalist outlook and sound instincts, who is seasoned in foreign affairs. But a Bush presidency need be no disaster for America's allies or the world in general. He is no Barry Goldwater-like extremist, nor does he belong to the isolationist wing of his party. The men around him, such as his vice-presidential running mate, Dick Cheney, and the former general Colin Powell, are of the highest pedigree.

The Texas Governor may be intellectually lazy and incurious, his environmental policies leave much to be desired, and he has yet to show his mettle in a genuine crisis. But, as Mr Gore has learned to his cost, he is all too easily underestimated. If economic boom is followed by bust, Mr Bush's free-trade, anti-protectionist instincts are more reliable than those of the Vice-President. In short, whether his "compassionate conservatism" or Mr Gore's "steady-as-she-goes" approach carries the day, America will probably be in safe-enough hands for the next four years.

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