What Makes People Think Bush Has Won?

''Politics ain't beanbag''

-- Finley Peter Dunne

One of the many oddities of this cliffhanger election is what might be called the entitlement gap. Right from election night, the Republicans have behaved as if the election was theirs, while Vice President Gore has temporized. This sense of Republican entitlement in turn translates into a partisan rage that if Gore should win,the election will have been stolen.

But consider: It's pretty clear that more Florida voters intended to vote for Gore. At least 19,000 votes in Palm Beach County were voided because they were punched twice, reflecting voter confusion over which hole meant Gore and which one meant Buchanan. These were nearly all Gore votes. Another 3,000 or so Palm Beach voters who voted for Buchanan meant to vote for Gore.

There is also the plain illegality that some 15,000 absentee ballot applications in Seminole County that should have been disqualified as incomplete were cleaned up by Republican election officials.

So Gore should really be up in Florida by 20,000 to 40,000 votes. And, of course, Gore is now leading in the national popular vote by more than 300,000.

So if anyone should feel cheated, it's Gore. Why, then, the entitlement gap?

The first reason is the multiple missteps of the media. Once the networks mistakenly called the election for Bush (with Bush first cousin John Ellis's thumb on the Fox Networks election scale, it turns out), the idea just stuck that Bush had won and that Gore was the pretender.

Many media commentators compounded the damage in the first days after Nov. 7 by painting Gore as a sore loser. And these were not just TV talking airheads. A political writer as normally astute as The New Yorker's Joe Klein wrote, right after the election, that Gore ran a more divisive campaign and then reinforced his partisan reputation by challenging the results in Florida; if he does win the election, his ability to govern will have been severely compromised.

Really? The evidence strongly suggests that a plurality of Florida voters actually intended to vote for Gore. Why in the world shouldn't Gore have challenged the initial count? Can you imagine the Republicans just sitting back and caving in if 23,000 intended Bush votes had either been voided or mistakenly slotted to Ralph Nader?

The second reason for the entitlement gap is that Bush, having been handed so very much as he fell his way up the ladder, seems just to feel more entitled. Isn't the presidency his to inherit?

Third, the Republican Party is angrier, having failed to get Bill Clinton's scalp, and more unified than the Democrats. Right from Nov. 8, some Democrats were already calling on Gore to step down for the good of the country.

But why? The man won the national popular vote, and a fair recount could well give him Florida and the election.

Yet the Republicans keep playing hardball while too many Democrats play beanbag.

One happy exception is Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota. Daschle has made it clear that if the Senate divides 50-50, he will fight for an equal share of committee chairmanships. And news reports have him approaching liberal Republican Senators Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, to switch parties.

More power to Daschle. The pundits insist the public is just sick of all the partisan squabbling, but somehow fierce Republican partisanship seems to get a free pass. What makes the public even sicker, I suspect, is leadership that fails to lead and a government that keeps ducking national problems that cry out for remedy.

The entitlement gap, in turn, prefigures a governing gap. If Gore wins, the Republicans will oppose him tooth and claw. Gore's plight will be worsened because at least 40 New Democrats in Congress tend to side with Republicans on such issues as vouchers and Social Security privatization. It's this bipartisan Trojan horse, and not partisanship, that would hobble Gore.

If Bush wins, by contrast, his own party will quickly rally behind him. All he needs do is put a token Democrat in his Cabinet, make gestures to the center, and the sense of illegitimacy will fade. The same faithless Democrats will give him a nice working majority.

I thought Ralph Nader's candidacy was quixotic. But there's not much in his critique of the Democrats to disagree with. The other serious gaps between the two major parties are gaps of passion, cohesion, and conviction.

To govern, a President Gore would need to remedy that, and fast.

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