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Published Sunday, November 12, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News


Gracefully conceding could benefit Gore, Democrats' future



The most orderly thing about our sometimes-disorderly democracy has been the quadrennial presidential elections. Since America matured into a world power at the start of the 20th century, the choice of a president every fourth November has gone off as routinely as the annual shift from daylight-saving time.

Then last week, the normally clockwork election burst its springs. And for the second time in two years, America finds itself ticking toward a constitutional crisis.

Perhaps as big a question as who will be the next president is this: Does America have the stomach for another national legal drama with the fate of the presidency in the balance?

If the country learned one lesson from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, it's that once the dominoes start falling in one of these complex constitutional processes, it's hard to stop them.

When the House of Representatives began considering impeachment proceedings against Clinton in the fall of 1998, few believed that the process would ever run its full course. But there the country was, on Feb. 12, 1999, watching as senators took the extraordinary step of voting on whether to remove a president from office for the first time.

The 2000 presidential election also is heading into constitutional territory not charted since the late 1800s. If a legal challenge delays Florida's official results past Dec. 18, when electors from every state gather to officially elect the next president, nobody is really sure what will happen. Under one particularly convoluted constitutional scenario, 97-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., the president pro tempore of the Senate, could end up as president.

That uncertainly had led even some leaders of the Democratic Party to suggest that Vice President Al Gore concede if Florida's absentee ballots continue George W. Bush's lead in Florida. It would be completely out of character for Gore to stop fighting, but it may actually be the best thing he could do for his own political future -- and the future of his party.

It's true that when all the ballots are finally counted nationwide, Gore most likely will have won, if incredibly narrowly, the popular vote. And it's also probably true that thousands of voters in Palm Beach County, Fla., went into the voting booth to select Gore, then voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake because they were confused by the ballot.

But it's also true that whoever wins this election will have ascended to the Oval Office in controversy, with no mandate to pursue the agenda he's shopped around the country for more than a year. Congress is more partisanly split than ever. And odds are that no White House proposal of any substance will get enacted.

In 2002, that gridlock probably will lead the president's party to get creamed in the midterm congressional elections. And in 2004, the incumbent president's lack of significant accomplishments would be cannon fodder for the opposition.

So, let's assume the remaining overseas absentee ballots in Florida don't swing the election to Gore (a likely scenario, since Republican nominee Robert Dole won the overseas absentee ballots in 1996, even though he lost the Election Day vote in the state). What does the vice president really gain by a legal battle over that confusing Palm Beach County ballot?

The best-case scenario: He gains a hobbled presidency amid a storm of controversy. The worst-case scenario: He loses the presidency and is forever tarred as the ultimate sore loser.

So Gore has to at least consider acting the statesman and conceding the election if the final absentee count keeps Florida in the Bush column. Some say that would be good for the nation. Whether that's true really depends, in part, on what would disillusion voters more: a drawn-out legal battle or the nagging sense that the election wasn't completely fair. It also would partly depend on whether postponing a decision is likely to give the world, and its markets, the jitters.

But conceding with grace would almost certainly be good for Gore, and for the Democratic Party.

A week ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find a Democratic official who thought Gore had any chance of winning the party's nomination in 2004 if he lost this year. His campaign had been strongly criticized, and he seemed on the verge of losing by a larger margin than the two to four percentage points that he trailed Bush during polls in the campaign's final weeks.

As it turns out, Gore likely did what few thought was possible -- he appears to have pulled out a narrow win in the popular vote. And, even if he loses the absentee balloting in Florida, he still would probably be just hundreds of votes shy of what he needed to secure 270 electoral votes and clinch the presidency.

If that alone didn't help his image, conceding would. It would instantly alter the perception of him as a man who will do anything to win the presidency.

But how difficult it must be to give up on the world's most powerful office when, after 100 million votes were cast, you're just a couple of hundred from victory. How hard it must be to watch such a long-held dream slip away.

It might help Gore to remember that, if history is any guide, his dream might not be gone. Of the three candidates in the nation's history who won the popular vote but failed to gain the presidency, two of them -- Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland -- went on to win four years later. And the last candidate to eschew a legal challenge in a razor-thin race, Richard Nixon in 1960, also went on to win the presidency.
Jim Puzzanghera is the Washington Bureau chief for the Mercury News.

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