Here's what I think:
1. In all likelihood, a majority of the ballots cast by Florida voters in the election of 2000 were for, or meant for, Al Gore.
2. In a perfect system, the vice president would now be the president-elect.
3. Ours is not a perfect system.
Certainly, it's not as perfect as it could be made by federal standards requiring the use of computerized voting devices, but that's a screed for another time. For now, suffice to say that any system in which the will of the voters is left hanging by a chad or flying away on a butterfly ballot is a system with no claim to flawlessness.
So here's the question raised by all this: What now?
Al Gore would find that a no-brainer. His answer? Fight, of course. Exhaust every legal remedy. He says he's doing it for the country, which is a sweet lie, but a lie nonetheless. Obviously, he's doing it for his political future. But it strikes me that if he's not careful, Gore may end up killing the very thing he seeks to save.
Watching the vice president these last few weeks, I'm reminded of Winston Churchill's famous address during the depths of World War II: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets ... we shall never surrender."
Many Republicans and even a few Democrats now believe Gore might be better served by recalling Kenny Rogers' famous address during the depths of the disco era: "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."
Give me a few more days and I may join those who think the time to fold 'em has arrived. For now I say, let the veep mount his formal challenge to Florida's election results. It's his right and maybe, given the bizarre circumstances of this election, even his duty.
But let him understand this much: The nation's patience with all this is finite and running out fast. And each moment that drags on without resolution risks not just the forbearance of the electorate but also Gore's future viability as a presidential candidate. Does he really want to change his image from that of a pedantic robot to a pedantic robot who can't take no for an answer?
Not that I don't sympathize with the vice president's predicament. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: It's harder to lose by a close margin than to suffer a blowout. With a blowout, at least, the issue is definitively settled. There are no nagging questions, no vexing what-ifs.
Gore, on the other hand, faces the very real prospect of losing the presidency by fewer than a thousand votes. And his frustration must be especially acute because, let's face it, he seems to need the job in a way George W. Bush does not. The Texas governor gives the impression of having run for office because people told him to and he had nothing better to do. On the other hand, Gore comes across as a guy for whom winning the Oval Office is a biological necessity.
Nothing wrong with being driven, so long as one is not driven past the point of diminishing returns. Where the vice president is concerned, that point is coming up fast.
... This affair is an important test of the country's maturity.
Contrary to what some have said, this isn't a constitutional crisis. A constitutional crisis would be Gore rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20 at the head of a column of tanks. Nor does the controversy make me question the legitimacy of any presidency produced by such a screwy election. Gerald Ford entered the Oval Office without a single person voting for him and the nation never seemed to regard him as less than a real president.
Don't get me wrong. Obviously, this affair is an important test of the country's maturity. But I believe it has become, even more, a test of one man's character.
Because barring a political miracle, Al Gore is going to lose an election he would, in a perfect system, have won. The nation will deal with it.
The question is, can he?