The Future of the US Presidency in the Aftermath of the Contested Election
of 2000: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Statesman, Kolkata (Calcutta)
the Grip of Circumstances"
The most important outcome of the recent American
election will not be, surprisingly, the choice of either Bush or Gore to
serve the first full Presidential term of the new millenium. Regardless
of the outcome of court decisions and a final tally in Florida, the enduring
legacy of this most closely contested of American elections will be shaped
by a momentum driving both candidates toward the center of the political
spectrum. That momentum is, although at the moment beneath the threshold
of visibility, already at work.
What one sees in the United States today is a
nation riven by partisanship. Bush adherents want an immediate end
to the election, since their man is ahead. Gore adherents want a recount
of Florida votes, since a recount may push their man ahead. Both candidates
strive to appear Presidential, while their senior counselors make stridently
political statements to the press. This is known as ‘spinning’
the unfolding events to the populace, and doing so in a manner that guarantees
the future President ‘deniable responsibility’ for partisanship.
The fact is that the next President will be caught
in the grip of circumstances which insist that he eschew partisanship and
move further toward the center than either candidate had intended when he
announced his candidacy. For there is, and will be, nothing less than
a crisis of legitimacy for the new regime. Whether Bush wins or Gore
wins, the supporters of his opponent – and they are legion –
will believe the election was stolen from them. Bush supporters have
seen the narrowest of margins support their man: in a democracy, every vote
counts, and their man had more votes in Florida. Gore supporters have
seen their man fall behind because it appears that every vote is not counted
in a state governed by Bush’s brother, Jeb.
The new President will have to deal with intense
suspicion that the election was won by fraud and deceit: that he does not
deserve to be President because he lost the election in Florida and only
won by manipulating the electoral process. The new President will have
two years to convince the tens of millions of angry doubters -- convince
them not of he rightness of his policies, but that he is a legitimate President.
What this will mean, of course, is that gaining
acceptance and legitimacy, not policy, will drive the next President in his
first two years, when he establishes the shape of his administration, and
in his second two years, when he runs for re-election in a divided country.
There is only way to gain such legitimacy: to assure the voters who did not
vote for him that they have not been ill-served by his election.
The first thing either Bush or Gore will do is
appoint to his Cabinet a substantial number of members of the opposing party.
Clinton did this in smaller measure when he appointed Republican Senator
William Cohen as Secretary of Defense, assuring by that move that there would
be bipartisan support for the military policies of the first President in
modern times who did not himself serve in the military.
The second and more important initiative by the
new President will be to move even more toward the center than Presidential
candidates usually do – and America’s two party system usually
guarantees that each candidate has moved toward the center even in the process
One of the great fears regarding President Bush
is that he will appoint Supreme Court Justices who will curtail civil liberties,
especially the right to an abortion. Bush, who had made secret promises
to his right wing supporters that he would apply a ‘litmus test’
on opposing abortion rights to all Supreme Court nominees, will not be able
to do this. He will appoint centrists, not conservatives, to the Supreme
Court. He will not oversee the dismantling of abortion rights or, for
that matter, environmental regulations. He will not oppose attempts
to raise the minimum wage. He may still press for a tax cut benefiting
the wealthy, but that is the only campaign pledge he will be able to support.
One of the great fears regarding President Gore
is that he will continue to win out, as Bill Clinton has, in battles with
a Republican Congress. Despite the fact that the new Congress is only
barely Republican, it does have a narrow Republican majority. Gore
promised in his campaign to fight for working people. As President,
despite his hopes, he will not be a fighter: he will have to compromise,
conciliate, mollify. One can look forward to a Gore presidency which
avoids every showdown with Congress by meeting many of the demands of the
Republican Congressional agenda.
What will the move to the center mean to India?
In economics, both candidates, and the center of both parties, are committed
to easing all barriers to international trade and dismantling all obstacles
to multinational development. The fringes of both parties, right and
left, will be even more powerless to oppose this new internationalism than
before. Gore, in particular, will find it harder to provide international
aid and forgive the debts of developing nations. In foreign affairs,
Gore will be more cautious in committing American troops to international
peace-keeping, and Bush will be more open to peace-keeping than previously.
Both will be more likely to honor existing alliances than they would have
been had they won a mandate to govern. Still, it is likely that there
will be more isolationism in American foreign policy than there has been
for sixty years: when the legitimacy of an administration is in doubt, taking
care of things at home is the most sensible policy. Making war –
sometimes a rallying point for an unpopular leader – is not possible
when half of the nation believes that their ‘leader’ is illegitimate.
Finally, one can see a new role for Indian-Americans in the political process.
Whoever is finally elected President, Bush or Gore, by a nation so closely
divided and so suspicious of the results of that division, will pay greater
attention to the crucial Indian-American constituency than has ever been