Column: Accusations, tainted process produce precarious president

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 9, 2001

In twelve days, George W.

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

In twelve days, George W. Bush will become the 43rd president of the United States. I don’t know whether I should offer congratulations or condolences. The job of President is a thankless one – sure, the President has immense powers, but the job also comes with many responsibilities. No matter what &uot;Dubya&uot; does, people will criticize him. A possibly &uot;tainted&uot; election only makes his job more difficult. He seems a likable fellow, and he’s choosing an administration that is a reflection of America’s political and ethnic diversity. But I’m still going to have to reserve judgement on his presidency. He gets no benefit of the doubt, no &uot;honeymoon&uot; from me.

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My skepticism is not a reflection of my opinion of Mr. Bush himself. Of the two major-party candidates, he always seemed the one more likely to create compromise and build consensus among the warring factions in Washington. Neither is my skepticism the result of support for Mr. Gore: I voted for Ralph Nader. Indifference described my attitude towards both Bush and Gore before the election; they are career politicians who sold out to big corporations or big labor unions (or both).

That indifference changed after the election, however, during the controversy over undercounted ballots in Florida and the &uot;win at any cost&uot; mentality that governed the responses of both parties. Democrats have a lot to answer for as they try to explain their behavior and decisions. But as a former Republican, I saw nothing to bring me back to the GOP during the Florida fiasco. Republicans from New York chasing a county election official through the courthouse in Dade County? Bush supporters hanging around outside Gore’s home in Tennessee, chanting slogans? Supposedly independent &uot;conservative&uot; columnists, George Will and Cort Kirkwood among them, accusing Democrats of &uot;stealing&uot; an election?

What I saw was this: in a state that has historically made voting difficult for anyone who wasn’t white or part of the &uot;good old boy&uot; network, thousands of ballots were left uncounted by human beings. The machines were turned

into &uot;godlike&uot; devices, whose decisions were to be left unchallenged. First the Bush campaign and other Republicans filed suit to block hand recounts, slowing things down or stopping counting completely, then as the different deadlines approached they said &uot;time’s up!&uot; The GOP in Florida and at the national level comes off looking like a bunch of rednecks who don’t really like democracy, unless it favors them. Was an election &uot;stolen&uot; in Florida? We’ll probably never know for sure. But what we do know is that the Republicans did everything possible to make sure their candidate, George Bush, was declared the winner, even if he didn’t get the vote totals to justify that victory.

What creates the most antagonism toward politicians (to be honest, mainly Republicans) in our house at the moment, are the &uot;win at all costs&uot; and &uot;winner take all&uot; attitudes of many of our current leaders. Washington politicians are, of course, far away from ordinary people – inside the beltway is the clich\u00E9 – so maybe Democrats haven’t noticed that many of us think they are simply nicer Republicans. And maybe Republicans haven’t noticed that their &uot;majority&uot; is paper thin (dare I say &uot;chad&uot; thin?). Most of the people who voted in the presidential election, even without the undercounted ballots in Florida, did not vote for George Bush and the Republican Party agenda. After all the noise and fireworks there are no mandates for Republican ideas, only Republican officeholders who managed to survive an incredibly tight election.

In the end, I suppose this sort of election does two things. First, it discredits the sports analogies about winning and losing that are applied to politics. At the end of a hockey or soccer game, one team wins because they played the best or were just plain lucky. The other team loses. But even in sports, winning at all costs is usually against the rules and when it happens ends up making a coach or athlete look like a poor sport. At the end of an election, one candidate wins, but it would be foolish to assume that all the voters who supported other candidates are going to automatically support the winner. That support will need to be earned through actions. Ironically, the Republican leadership itself in its contempt for President Clinton has provided plenty of examples on how to undermine the power and prestige of the president.

Second, this election reveals a nation that is deeply divided. I know that many are asking us to put aside our differences and get along, but I’m no sure that is a good idea. We Americans do not agree about very many things nowadays: why people are poor, the purpose of government, due process for lawbreakers (and the list goes on). We don’t even agree on what it means to be an American. Pretending these differences don’t exist will only create more problems. With each year it seems we resemble more and more the &uot;Untied&uot; instead of the &uot;United&uot; States of America – that’s a conflict we will need to do something about, but more about that some other day.

On January 20th, George Bush will become the president But whether he deserves that office and the respect that goes with it will depend on what he does next.

David Behling’s is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.