It’s over. Nearly five weeks after U.S. voters went to the polls, Texas Gov. George W. Bush can claim to be the official winner and the 43rd president of the United States. It has been a wrenching time, for the candidates, their parties and the American public. Now, the healing must begin. It will be a long and difficult process, but the U.S. is a resilient country. It will survive this test and may, with patience and determination, emerge even stronger.
Mr. Bush inherits a country divided as never before. He won the presidency by the slimmest of margins. He claimed 271 votes in the Electoral College, one more than the bare minimum required to take office. Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote by a mere three-tenths of a percentage point. The U.S. Senate is divided exactly in half; in the House of Representatives, the Republicans hold a razor-thin margin of five seats out of 435. State governments are just as neatly split.
Of greater concern is the damage that has been done to national institutions during the bruising post-election battle. Both men, their organizations and their parties have been widely perceived as bitterly partisan during this difficult time. In addition, the taint of party politics now laps at the judiciary. Much of the appeal of U.S. democracy has been the perception that the judiciary is independent of other branches of government and could be counted on to rise above the partisan fray.
That may have been overly naive, but perceptions matter, and now the image of the judiciary is that of an institution just as mired in politics as any other. The U.S. Supreme Court, in particular, seems damaged. Once applauded for being independent and neutral, the Supreme Court now seems as partisan as the parties. It is unclear how much damage has been done or how it can be repaired.
Mr. Bush claims to be a “compassionate conservative,” who wants to heal the nation and rise above the partisanship of Washington politics. He campaigned as a “uniter, not a divider.” He will need to draw on all of his political skills if he is to live up to that image and be the president of all Americans. His victory speech was a good beginning. Mr. Bush spoke of reconciliation and his desire to heal. Expect him to invite some Democrats into his Cabinet and reach out across the aisle to govern from the center. Democrats will reciprocate, at least initially, but the narrowness of the Republican majorities will prove too tempting. Mr. Bush is likely to have a short honeymoon.
The new president must move quickly to establish centrist credentials. A good place to start is electoral reform. Five weeks of melodrama have exposed the capriciousness of U.S. elections. While Palm Beach’s “butterfly ballot” and dimpled chads may have captivated the media, black Americans see far more pervasive and systematic signs of discrimination in U.S. voting practices. Mr. Bush must authorize a full and independent investigation of Florida voting procedures — even though that will involve his brother, the governor of Florida.
In addition, Mr. Bush will face pressure to reform campaign spending. His former nemesis, Sen. John McCain, will lead that charge and he will be supported by Democrats. Mr. Bush was lukewarm about reform during the campaign, but the public wants change. The new president would do well to listen.
If he really wants to heal the nation, Mr. Bush will find a role for Mr. Gore. In his concession speech, perhaps the best speech of his career, Mr. Gore called on all Americans to rally behind the new administration and pronounced himself ready to help in any possible way. The new president should take him at his word and draw on Mr. Gore’s experience and political skill.
That may stick in the throat of partisans on both ends of the spectrum, but the biggest mistake the new president could make would be to listen to them. Americans have endorsed rule from the center. The nation’s divisions give moderates the mandate — and the cover — they need to govern.
The world needs a strong U.S. president, one ready to assume the responsibilities that come with global leadership. Mr. Bush, with his admitted lack of experience in foreign affairs, faces a steep learning curve. There will be no time to lose, given the crisis in the Middle East, the need to continue the momentum toward peace in Northeast Asia and Northern Ireland, and the inevitable difficulties that can be expected when dealing with Russia and China. Mr. Bush will have to reassure allies and friends that their fears of increasing U.S. unilateralism are misplaced. The prospect of an economic slowdown in the U.S. economy will only complicate matters. We wish the new president good fortune in the years ahead. He will need ample quantities to recover from the events of the last month.
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