National leaders should focus on similarities now

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, November 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — America will soon have not just a president elected by the slimmest and most controversial of margins, but also a precariously balanced national legislature.

It is a situation tailor-made for recrimination, bitterness and political gridlock. The country is verging on crisis.

But I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. The danger in our present situation is obvious. The presidential vote was so close — both in popular and electoral terms — that every slip-up, every batch of rejected ballots, every pocket of confused voters, every third party "spoiler" will be seen (by the losing side) as evidence that the election was stolen. It’s happening already, even before there is an official winner.

Why didn’t they simply accept the results as they were first tabulated by the voting machines? Why, in light of all the confusion, didn’t they have a recount — or better yet, a revote? Why didn’t someone investigate the implications of fraud in the number of black voters who claim they were interfered with in the electoral process? Why didn’t someone prevail upon Jesse Jackson, as much in the dark as the rest of us, to stop exciting racial passions?

When any little thing might have reversed the outcome, it’s tempting to see every little thing as proof of political chicanery, if not outright fraud. That’s the danger.

Here’s the opportunity: A little humility, a little statesmanship, a little willingness to rise above partisan interest could help heal this divided country.

And it is divided, along virtually every political fault line: black and white, urban and rural, left and right, rich and poor, even male and female. A friend of mine said the other day that what happened on Nov. 7 is that half the people voted against Al Gore and the other half voted against George Bush; few voters were passionately for either candidate.

There’s some truth in that. Thus, the thin electoral margin that will put one of them in office is less a green light for going forward to carry out controversial campaign pledges than a flashing caution light to proceed with great care, since half the traffic is moving against you.

There will be victory, but no mandate.

But suppose a few statesmanlike men and women from both parties (beginning with Bush and Gore) should step up and declare their intention to work toward political cooperation — even temporary coalition.

Suppose the leadership of both houses of Congress, recognizing the touch-and-go balance of power, agreed to some power-sharing arrangement — perhaps rotating chairmanships of important committees, perhaps an agreement not to take actions based on simple majority votes. Suppose the presidential candidates themselves agreed to have some number of Cabinet officers from the other party. The possibilities are endless.

And, at least at the state level, there is precedent. Virginia, when its statehouse was split down the middle from 1997 to 1999, essentially split committee chairmanships and undertook other measures — many of them written down and agreed to — to get the Legislature’s work done with a minimum of rancor.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says it worked well in Richmond. Could it work in Washington?

"There could be some power-sharing if the leadership were in a mood to do it in the interest of cooperation," Sabato said. "But I don’t think they are. Either (party) would gladly take full control with a 50-50 split broken by the vice president from their party. And they’d do it knowing full well that one or two visits from the Grim Reaper could turn everything around and set them up for revenge."

That’s one possibility. But there’s another. Our national leaders could be persuaded, at least for a year or two until things settle down, to focus more of their political conversation on the things they agree on and less on the things they disagree on. They could undertake to try to heal the divisions underscored by this razor-edge election but that have been gnawing away at our civic health for a long time. And probably the best time to start is before the presidential results are known.

As another friend reminded me awhile back, political campaigns are designed to point up our differences. Governance requires a focus on our similarities.

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