WASHINGTON — The nagging mystery about the presidential election of 2000 is how it came to be that two such bland characters as Al Gore and George W. Bush could have caused such havoc and division in the country’s governing institutions.
Is it coincidence or an important clue that from top to bottom, everything political seems to be split with mathematical precision?
If Bush prevails in Florida, he will be elected president with 271 electoral votes — one more than the minimum. In the popular vote, Gore leads by approximately 300,000 of 100 million — a margin of three-tenths of 1 percent.
The two courts whose opposing rulings have been most decisive have acted by 1-vote margins. The Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 for Gore. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 for Bush.
Everywhere you look, you see the same pattern. The Senate is divided evenly, 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. In the 435-member House of Representatives, the Republicans have a bare five-vote majority.
Take it closer to the grass roots and it’s the same thing. The party division in the legislatures is the closest in 50 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans control both chambers in 17 states; Democrats in 16; in the others, control is split.
All of this cannot have been caused by Bush and Gore. Indeed, it is easier to blame chance or coincidence for their near-tie than for anything else in this remarkable election. Had Ralph Nader not been in the race, the odds are overwhelming that Gore would have won going away. True, not all the Nader votes would have gone to Gore if Nader had not been running. But in Florida alone — not one of Nader’s better states — he drew 97,488 votes. A thousand more of them for Gore than Bush and Gore would have been president.
(By the way, have you noticed how inconspicuous Nader has made himself during all the battling over the Florida electoral votes?)
But Nader was not the main reason for the deadlocked presidential race. Gore and Bush cannot escape their own responsibility. If either of them had ignited great enthusiasm in the electorate, the result would not have been that close. If either had been able to gain a clear advantage among independents, he would have won easily. But that did not happen. And one plausible theory, not just for the closeness of the presidential race, but for all the other near-even splits, is that the voters don’t trust either party enough to give it the tools needed to govern.
Support for that theory can be found in the election results. The shifts of power were small, but the pattern was consistent. Whichever party went into Election Day ahead emerged in worse shape. Democrats whittled the Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate. Republicans reduced the Democratic lead among state senators and representatives — and among governors as well.
So those who want to say this was a vote of no confidence in both sides have evidence to support them.
But there is also a more positive interpretation of what happened. You can argue that the voters were sending a strong signal to govern from the center. It’s been almost impossible to think much about policy during this endless preoccupation with dimpled chads and other wonderments. But many of the newly elected or re-elected members of Congress I’ve interviewed say that the message they heard from their constituents was a plea to put aside partisanship and pursue the kind of centrist solutions that make sense for the country.
That opens an opportunity for the new president and it imposes a responsibility on the leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill. But realistically, it will not be easy.
The extraordinarily close balance of power between the parties is a strong motivation to both Republicans and Democrats to seek a clear edge in the next election. In 2002, the Senate will obviously be at stake, with 20 Republican and 14 Democratic seats up for election. The House of Representatives, reapportioned to reflect the results of the 2000 Census, will likely see even tougher competition than this year.
If past patterns hold, a number of veteran lawmakers will retire, rather than face the challenge of introducing themselves to new constituents, and the open seats will invite large numbers of contenders. Meantime, the redistricting battles in the 26 states where neither party controls both the legislature and the governorship will be fiercely fought.
Will the partisan deadlock be broken? No one knows, but if it is, the breaking sounds will be deafening.