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Archive for Monday, November 13, 2000

Cheapening the prize

November 13, 2000

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The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:

We print today remarks by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter at a White House commemorative ceremony last week. They are a reminder of a set of values that have too often seemed missing in the politics of recent years. In an era in which the White House has been converted into a semi-permanent war room, in which a speaker of the House proclaimed a partisan revolution, in which the impeachment power was casually used by some as if it were no more than a political tool, the gently delivered message comes almost as a shock: Winning isn't everything.

It is easy, of course, for retired politicians to be more philosophical in retrospect than ever they were in office. It is easy, also, to look at the past through too rosy a lens. The politics and the constitutional crisis that brought Mr. Ford to the presidency were anything but beanbag. But perhaps that makes the message all the stronger. The people now occupying the Gore and Bush war rooms, to whom the message was partly directed, would do well to take heed.

There were headlines in some foreign newspapers last week mocking the world's greatest democracy for its difficulty in electing its own president. The mockery seems to us misplaced; so, too, the squeaking about a constitutional crisis. We share Mr. Carter's optimism. "I've seen troubled elections," he said. "This is an unaccustomed event for Americans. But I think that all of us should remember that our system will prevail; that our nation is so ... strong and the tradition is so embedded in the consciousness of all leaders here that we will survive this present uncertainty. ..."

The election results have put the parties, candidates, campaigns and election officials to an extraordinary test. It has no precedent not a useful one, in any case. More than 100 million people voted. The popular vote is almost exactly split; so too the electoral vote. The electoral balance appears to have come down to a single state, Florida, where the current difference between the candidates appears to be about 325 votes out of some 6 million cast. There are disputes about voting conditions, ballots and tallies in any election. Here they are hugely magnified; control of the national government is at stake. But so is the legitimacy of the final result, whether people in the end will accept the outcome as having been fair. And on that will rest to some degree the ability of the winner to lead the country.

At this stage neither campaign seems to us to be paying sufficient attention to legitimacy. Each candidate promised in his own way to restore dignity to the White House. Now, even before arriving, both are resorting to the win-at-any-cost tactics they pretend to disdain. Mr. Gore's people have spent the better part of a week asserting without proof that he is entitled to the victory and that any other outcome will be unjust. His people threatened a few days ago to go to court to have parts of the Florida election invalidated and rerun. The Bush people deplored that, saying rightly, in our view that the courts are the wrong venue for deciding the election. But now it is they who have gone to court for the dubious purpose of preventing further counting.

Some influential Democrats began warning Mr. Gore last week that he would lose support theirs included if the public perceived that he was fighting unfairly against the ultimate tally. The Bush camp runs the same risk in trying to suppress the counting of votes fairly cast. We say again: The goal should be to accurately count every decipherable vote that was cast Tuesday. Then one of them will have lost, who knows by how few votes, and will have to acknowledge it. Mr. Ford said the other night, "Take it from one who knows all about losing a close election, there is life after Inauguration Day. ... The clash of partisan political ideas remains just that, to be quickly followed by a peaceful transfer of authority. We will and we must in 2001."

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