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Wed, Oct. 23

Americans must bridge current political divide

The American people and the national government are split down the middle politically. The question is, will their leaders take this as a command for bipartisan statesmanship or continued political warfare?

The stakes are high: The presidency is up for grabs in the Florida recount, and the House and Senate margins of control are so close that Congress's ability to get anything done remains in doubt.

On the other hand, the policy differences between the parties are not profound. They concern the size of tax cuts and the manner of Social Security and Medicare funding, not slavery or the future of democracy.

So, the next president - whether it's Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush - ought to make it his first order of business to reassure the other side that he is willing to reach out and end the partisan savagery that has poisoned the atmosphere in Washington for the past decade.

The first test was the presidential recount. Neither Bush nor Gore could be expected to give up the presidency without a check on the accuracy of a 1,800-vote margin out of 5.8 million votes cast in Florida.

On the other hand, the two candidates and their aides needed to avoid the kind of rancorous conflict that has characterized various recent contested congressional elections.

The 1996 contest between former Rep. Bob Dornan, R, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D, in California's 46th district wasn't resolved until February 1998. A challenge to the 1996 election of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., wasn't over until October 1997. Ill will still exists over the Democratic House's overturning of the result of the 1984 election in Indiana's 8th district. If such a fierce combatant as Richard Nixon could forgo a challenge to possibly fraudulent voting in Illinois that cost him the 1960 election, this year's losing party ought to stop short of an extende a challenge in Florida. But already Democrats want to protest misprinted and hard-to-handle ballots in Palm Beach and the Rev. Jesse Jackson began raising civil rights complaints about police checks in Tampa. Republicans doubtless can come up with countervailing grounds for challenge.

The danger is that a politically divided country could become a truly polarized one if leaders of both parties let their partisanship overcome their sense of responsibility.

This would be a tragedy after what was, essentially, a well-fought campaign that did credit to both Gore and Bush. It was a campaign fought largely on issues and questions of qualification. There was character criticism but not character assassination. Critics of Gore might say that, with a strong economy, he should have coasted to victory. Indeed, exit polls showed that by 65 percent to 31 percent, voters said that the country was headed in the right direction. By 56 percent to 41 percent, they said they believe the country needs to "stay on course" rather than have "a fresh start." On the other hand, Gore had the legacy of President Clinton's ethical lapses hanging around his neck. Sixty-eight percent of voters said Clinton would be remembered in history for his scandals, and by 62 percent to 33 percent these voters supported Bush. Gore trailed Bush in national polls for most of 1999 and seemed slightly behind even a week before the election - which led pundits like me to mistakenly predict a solid Bush victory. But Gore closed the margin, partly by organizing African-American turnout that surpassed Clinton's performances in 1992 and 1996.

Clinton received 84 percent and 83 percent of the black vote, respectively, in those years. Gore scored 90 percent and outstripped Clinton's showing in all the major battleground states. On the other side, critics of Bush can say that if he'd spent less time trying to upset Gore in California and had devoted more time to Florida, wouldn't have been in danger of losing the election.

Also, some critics say, had he named Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, R, as his running mate, he might have won that state's 23 electoral votes and cinched the election.

On the other hand, he took on an incumbent party in a time of peace and prosperity and only narrowly lost the popular vote.

The lesson of the exit polls — and the election — is that there is room for agreements on major issues if elected leaders will try to achieve them.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

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