Electoral College cheer

Nov 15, 2000 at 12:00 am

Two days after the election to end all elections, when I finally got some sleep, I dreamed Bill Clinton was suddenly on every channel, sporting that warm but cocky little grin he used to have more often in the early days.

“I am today announcing that we have reached an agreement whereby we will suspend the Constitution and I will stay on as your president for another four years, this time with Dick Cheney as my vice president.

“America needs stability. You know me, and know what to expect from me — the good and the bad,” he said. Briefly, I thought I saw Delta Burke come up and put her hands on his shoulders as he sat at his Oval Office desk.

“This solution was actually suggested by the Republican Party, which now realizes it will never be able to raise as much money or win as many seats in Congress without me here to hate,” he added.

“Also, in accordance with the wishes of the Democratic Party, I have also agreed to indulge in certain personal conduct which may possibly provide grounds on which to impeach me again.”

That may seem slightly less wild than what happened last week. But getting real, there is a simple and relatively painless way to resolve our case of electile dysfunction: Admit the truth; it essentially was a tie. Democrats who protest that Al Gore won the popular vote should be careful. We don’t know that yet. There are still 3 million or so uncounted absentee and other ballots floating around out there.

So both parties should agree to a high-tech version of the old coin toss. Then the winner would pick the loser’s vice presidential candidate, and solemnly pledge to only serve one term. The nation seems no more ready for any kind of radical change, left or right, than a tapioca sandwich. Odds are we could muddle through four years of a semi-caretaker government while sorting out the future.

Naturally, that won’t happen; it makes far too much sense.

Yet we will get a president-elect, possibly by the end of this week. When that happens, things will quickly settle down. The winners and the losers will lick their wounds, and at some level, even the media may realize the awful truth: The system basically works.

And it works because of the often-reviled Electoral College.

Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman who, with a lot of help, managed to destroy our best hope of health care reform in 1993-94, was trying to mess things up again last week.

Hillary wants to abolish the Electoral College, which would plunge us into real chaos. Possibly she hasn’t kept up with the news, but it is very close to a dead heat in the popular vote, with no more than 0.2 percent separating Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Would she have us recount the whole country? How many times? Would the loser then call for a “hand-count” after that? Who, by the way, won the popular vote in the other really close race in modern history, Nixon-Kennedy in 1960?

Nobody on earth knows; voters in one state were allowed to split their votes between two sets of electors; the figure in your almanac is really convenient fiction.

Would presidential candidates ever visit West Virginia or Saginaw if the election was only about the national popular vote? Never. They would spend all their time on TV or in the major cities, unless there was an important disaster photo-op.

Don’t get me wrong. I loathe the thought of Sawdust Head in the White House, letting old Cold Warrior wannabes run foreign policy, passing on massive tax cuts to his friends in the oil “bidness” and trying to appoint ideologues to the Supreme Court.

Nor do I think it is likely Bush would have won Florida, had the Palm Beach County ballot not been a mess. What we need is a standard, easy-to-read ballot; where I live, you just draw a line to connect an arrow in a process so easy a professor could understand it.

Yet that’s the way it was, and lawsuits now might start a process that really would end in chaos. There is a difference between stupidity and deliberate fraud.

Possibly enough votes will turn up, in the end, to turn the tide for Al, though everything I know suggests otherwise. Democrats ought to be statesmanlike. A President Bush II would take office with a minority of the popular vote (maybe even less than Gore) and a Congress more closely divided than ever.

Not only will that limit his “mandate” for general foolishness, if historical patterns hold, the odds are extremely high that Democrats can take back both houses of Congress in 2002, and have an excellent chance of reclaiming the presidency in 2004.

But regardless of who wins, there is something troubling in the returns that hasn’t been talked about. Despite the overall closeness, they show a country incredibly and sharply divided. No one has ever been elected president before who lost any state by a million votes. Bush lost New York and California by more. Gore lost Texas by 1.4 million.

In some Rocky Mountain states, Gore didn’t even get a third of the vote. Bush was decisively rejected by every intellectual, cultural and manufacturing center in this country. He lost Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts by landslides; Pennsylvania and Michigan by solid margins. We are two nations, and as I write, the most artificial state of all, Florida, holds the balance of power. And a former frat boy with a drinking problem, a man who admittedly doesn’t like to read, leads there by 327 votes out of 5,820,000.

What a country.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]