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Op-Ed

Election Shows Strength, Not Weakness, of American Democracy

Ivo H. Daalder and Philip H. Gordon

International reactions to America’s election result (or more precisely, the lack of a result) have consisted of an uneasy mix of astonishment, ridicule, Schadenfreude, and concern. On the surface, there is good reason for the disdain and disbelief about the most bizarre election in recent memory. A dead man defeated an incumbent Senator in Missouri. The President’s wife was elected Senator from New York, a state in which she had never previously lived. A large number of elderly Jews in Florida voted, without realizing it, for a far-right Catholic candidate rather than for the first orthodox American Jew on a major ticket.

The ironies go on: the governor of the key contested state of Florida (Jeb Bush) is the brother of the candidate (George W. Bush) who is running against the vice president (Al Gore) of the man (Bill Clinton) who beat their father (George Bush). The democratic point man for the Florida recount (Bill Daley) is the son of the Chicago Mayor (Richard Daley) best known for getting dead people to vote (as opposed to getting them elected), thus allegedly helping tip the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy. On election night, all the main television networks managed to call Florida for Gore prematurely, then to apologize profusely for jumping the gun, then to call it for Bush, before retracting that call too, with an equally sincere apology. (The first network call for Bush was made by Fox TV’s John Ellis, who happens to be the

And, of course, 10 days after the election, the nation is still waiting to learn who will be its next president as votes in Florida are counted, recounted, and counted once again. It is perhaps not surprising that Russia, Cuba, Libya and others have not been able to resist the temptation to offer to send election observers to the United States.

Behind the wry humor, however, lies a more serious fear that America faces a political crisis that may have global consequences. Though the United States is often accused of being overbearing, the concern is now the opposite—that a rudderless United States, lacking a legitimate President, might abdicate its global responsibilities, or be unable to act abroad.

Some in the United States—not least Bush’s point man former Secretary of State James Baker—have even fuelled these fears, charging that further delay in knowing the identity of America’s next president leaves the world in a dangerous state of uncertainty and has roiled financial markets around the globe. These charges are not only unfounded, but they are themselves potentially dangerous. Regardless of the election delay, the United States has a president, Bill Clinton, whose term of office runs until January 20, 2001—two full months from now. In the past, presidents have not hesitated to use the power of their office during this transition period. Indeed, during the last transition—from Bush to Clinton—a defeated president did not hesitate to commit 30,000 troops to Somalia, sign two major international agreements (banning chemical weapons and opening free trade in North America), and negotiate and sign the START II treaty reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. The world can expect President Clinton to be no less prepared to defend American interests, or deal with any crises, in the remaining weeks, days, and hours of his presidency.

Not only is the delay in declaring an election winner not a sign of a nation in crisis, it is, on the contrary, evidence of the strength of American democracy, and the country’s commitment to the rule of law. It is important to remember that this “crisis” is not the result of fraud, vote-buying, vote-rigging or other dishonesties that used to exist in the American political system and which still plague so many countries around the world. Nor is it primarily the result of the quirks in the American system that have admittedly appeared over the past week: different types of ballots all over the country, including a badly designed (but not deliberately misleading) one in Florida; a media overeager to announce early election results; and a federal system that makes it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the election (which had not, after all, happened for 112 years).

Rather, and very simply, the delayed election outcome is more than anything the result of the truly exceptional closeness of the vote—in Florida a difference of 300 votes out of more than six million cast (that’s less than one out of every 20,000 votes), and nationally only 220,000 out of more than 100 million cast. It is only this remarkably narrow margin that made any of these other factors relevant—including the electoral college system that still has its merits.

Authors

P

Philip H. Gordon

Former Brookings Expert

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Even in the frenzied atmosphere here, where people understandably want to know who their next president will be, and much depends on the outcome, no one is even thinking about extra-constitutional actions, let alone the use of military force. We may now take this for granted, but how many political systems around outside of north America and western Europe could confront the situation America faces now without any serious worry that either side will resort to fraud or force to influence the outcome?

The proliferation of legal challenges, each followed inevitably by an appeal, is not pretty, but this is an Etat de droit in action, and it is a lot better than any of the arbitrary alternatives. When all is said and done—probably this weekend, but quite possibly later than that—America will know its next president. And despite all the complications, and the attempts of partisans on both sides to suggest that the other side is acting inappropriately, when all is said in down the vast majority (nearly 80% according to opinion polls) will accord him the legitimacy he is due.

Obviously, this is far from the election result anyone wanted, and the new President will have to make an extraordinary effort to build support from such a divided electorate and Congress. But the true test of a democracy comes not when things go well, but when they go badly. What we are witnessing now is a sign not of the weakness of American democracy, but of its strength.

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