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) , India

"Caught in the Grip of Circumstances"
November 22, 2000

       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 of campaigning.

       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 paid before.