It's a Crisis Only to The Candidates

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The pundits, the partisans and a fair number of citizens are treating the Florida ballot dispute like a constitutional crisis on the scale of Seven Days in May. Former Secretary of State James Baker, the solemn, senior aide to the Bush camp, says, "Our process is at risk," and we are "on the cusp of having this thing spiral out of control." Bush's strategy chief, Karl Rove, makes a legal battle sound like a civil war. Even a non-alarmist like CNN's Jeff Greenfield likened our democracy to a beautiful antique car sliding over a cliff.

What cliff? If there's a crisis, it's one of the commentariat, that sleep-deprived and hoarse horde working double shifts for 24/7 cable outlets, secretly happy they have a sequel to Elián in a place where they conveniently have satellite uplinks. Sure, some of the Jewish seniors gathering in their condo lounges in jogging suits are a little crabby over being called doddering geezers for voting for Pitchfork Pat, who longs for a Christian nation. There are jokes about our need for outside observers from El Salvador. But I haven't heard of any residents of the oceanfront towers in Palm Beach shouldering muskets. So far, the taking to the streets resembles a street fair, with retirees in walkers waving re-vote now signs and hawkers peddling indecision 2000 T shirts.

This is just a close election. It's time for America to take a deep, cleansing breath, even an audible Al Gore sigh or two. After that, let's all halve our coffee consumption, put the histrionics in a lockbox and take the time we need to try to ameliorate the unsatisfying results from a questionable ballot that has rendered Florida's 25 electoral votes fuzzy.

You'd think both candidates would see that patience is of the essence, although we're getting beyond that now. Anyone who doesn't concede an election the moment Dan Rather declares a winner risks being labeled a sore loser. Gore was so eager to surrender in a timely way that he jumped the gun, only to renege later when Florida drifted back into contention. Bush nearly refused to accept the retraction, protesting that little brother Jeb, who would know, had assured him the Sunshine State was his. To Gore, that wasn't a controlling legal authority. This time he was right.

It's understandable that Bush wants to shut the process down while he's ahead, although it's risky to be perceived as having won the presidency after ballots were thrown out in a state run by your brother. But what is everybody else's hurry? It will be hard enough for anyone to govern without a rush to judgment setting off a cottage industry of the grassy-knoll variety. Do we want Who Stole Florida? on the shelf alongside Who Shot JFK? Yet when Gore's deputies threatened litigation, Bush mouthpiece Karen Hughes warned that this would be unhealthy for the country. "That's not the way we do things in America," she huffed. Since when? Suing one another is all we do in America. And heaven forbid that someone would look to settle a real legal question before a judge rather than in the court of cable TV, Justices Novak, Press and Matalin presiding. After predicting a Dickensian legal quagmire, the Bush team raced to the courthouse on Friday to try to prevent votes from being counted by hand in four Florida counties, as election authorities had agreed to do in response to Gore requests. The Republic survived.

The whole mess has forced the candidates to behave slightly out of character. Gore, who turns hello into a treatise and who squeezed in one last town meeting at his voting place in Carthage before his home state rejected him, gave a very brief press conference cautioning his supporters that they would have to await the electoral vote despite his apparent win of the popular vote. He urged patience. He jogged and played his usual touch football with Tipper and the kids to the predictable taunts that he was acting Kennedyesque. But that's as presidential as he got.

In the meantime, Bush worked like a dog, putting on a tableau of transition. He may not be President, but he played one on TV, using the Governor's mansion in Austin like the set of The West Wing, ushering his make-believe Cabinet through iron gates into meetings. He gave up his usual afternoon video games and naps for lunches with his maybe Vice President on a table set with linens and silver, evoking those famous weekly Clinton-Gore meals adjacent to the Oval Office. He jauntily shooed away photographers, claiming that his soup was getting cold, which wasn't much of a problem since his usual peanut butter and jelly had been replaced by a Martha Stewart chilled squash purée.

The Constitution we're all in a dither over gives us two months to fix this. Bob Dole has joked that it's going to take a swat team to blast Clinton out of the Oval Office, so we don't need to be worried about whether he's going to give two weeks' notice. No fusion Cabinet, no bonding with members of the congressional opposition, will substitute for a genuine, authoritative result we can all live with, however unhappily. Only when we have that result will the winner have any hope of doing more than play-acting at the job. That's worth waiting for.