Anyone Around Here Seen a President?

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Voters cast their ballots in Flint, Mich.

Where is that new President of ours? I know he's here someplace.

Now you see him, now you don't.

The presidential election terminating the Clinton years ends in the ultimate Clintonism — an astonishing tie, a masterpiece of delicately balanced ambivalence. We end by looking at a split screen, like one of those old campaign buttons that shows you one image (Gore) if you look at it from one angle and a different image (Bush) if you tilt it slightly. I seem to see Clinton enter smilingly upon the chaotic scene: "Say, if y'all really can't make up your minds, why don't we just — I mean, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

The Dick Morris gizmo called Clintonism was a triangulated centrism rigging an elaborate system of moral weights and counterweights to balance itself safely at the center of the conflicted American heart. Thus, for example, the leftish diversity-monger from Hope canceled welfare as we know it.

"We are two nations," the novelist John Dos Passos wrote many years ago. Is that it? Or are we one nation, so intricately balanced in its impulses, so symmetrically cracked down the middle, that we cannot decide whether we are compassionate conservatives or fascist bleeding hearts? It's not that George Wallace was right long ago and Ralph Nader is correct now that there's not a dime's worth of difference between a Democrat and a Republican. Allowing for inflation, there's several dollars' worth.

But the American heart has long since outgrown the old simplisms in which the parties tend to think, in which the lefties and righties of talk radio and television tend to bray and hoot. Bill Clinton instinctively grasps the truth of the new American sympathies. One thinker who understands them perfectly is Alan Wolfe, a sociologist who has done admirable research in the cross-grained, complex American attitudes toward gay rights, abortion and other signature issues of the millennium.

So the great American rhinoceros has become a brilliant tightrope walker. Who imagined that the greatest power Earth has ever known could balance its corpulent corporate self so exquisitely and walk across the bridge into the twenty-first century as if toeing a cable over the abyss?

The blessing of the election of 2000 may be that no one emerges from it with "a mandate," for mandates are an invitation to simple-minded zealotry. The Gingrich Republicans thought they had a mandate after the 1994 elections. They played it hard and stupid; look at the grief they quickly came to.

So let not the passive-aggressives of the whining and victim-singing entitlement left believe that the American people have franchised them to expand their big-government-paradise dreams.

And let not the primitives and polluters of the screw-'em-all right start drilling for oil in Yellowstone or mass-producing electric chairs.

I say that this sublimely split decision is proof of the collective intelligence and sanity of the American electorate. Of course, either the Bush team or the Gore team will eventually be installed — unless they take a suggestion that I made months ago and effect a kind of giant corporate merger establishing for themselves a co-presidency, with one of them taking care of business in the Oval Office while the other presides over the sleek new corporate headquarters in someplace like Seattle or Portland.

But barring a mega-merger, the new administration (with Congress delicately balanced) may find itself locked in that exquisite immobility of moderation that may have been the goal of the voters' collective unconscious.

In any case, at the end of four years, President Gore or President Bush will have to deal with Senator Hillary Clinton, who will be scaling the White House fence with grappling hooks and claiming the old manse for her own.