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Hold 'em, Al

By Frank Gruber

"All politics is local." -- Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr.

November 11, 2000 --Sorry, Tip, sometimes politics is national, and even a local columnist must raise his staff and swirl his tea leaves and opine on our shared destiny, rather than on whether the cutoff for development review should be 30,000 or 7,500 square feet.

An important issue, by the way, about which neither presidential candidate has spoken.
Nature abhors a vacuum and no one likes a quitter. And columnists love aphorisms. These two explain what is going on in Florida.

The vacuum, the void, is the non-decision in Florida, the statistical meaninglessness of the difference in the vote. As mathematicians have pointed out, 300 or 500 or 1,000 votes out of six million is an insignificant difference overwhelmed by vagaries such as who is entitled to vote and have their votes counted, or the type of machine that is used to count the votes.

For example, the clunky punch card technology we use here in Los Angeles happens to be used proportionately by more African-Americans in Florida than by whites, and these machines more often fail to count a vote than the optical scanner technology used in counties that have fewer blacks.

If the Fox network had not called Florida for Bush, and if the other networks had not followed Fox's lead, on the morning of November 8 the decision-void would have been apparent even to the Republicans.

Apparent or not, the void attracted thousands of lawyers, politicians, journalists, public relations consultants, county workers and volunteers, and ordinary citizens, all seeking to resolve questions at the fringe of measurable reality, such as when is a vote a valid expression of a voter's intent.

The vote in Florida is an historical event, but it is also a metaphor for history itself -- something truly happened, but it is hard to understand what it was.

Postmarks, dimpled chads, all prove that supposedly clear rules, such as those governing absentee ballots, and presumably hard artifacts, such as ballots, create ambiguities that always exist but which the vote counters can usually ignore. Unfortunately, given that the opportunity to hand-count the entire state with consistent standards has now been lost, the losing side will never accept the other's victory as arithmetically correct.

The combination of an electorally determinative state and a dead heat have caused the present predicament, not any great substantive divide or crisis among Americans. Yet the passions unleashed threaten to divide the nation politically along lines harder than any since 1968.

In 1859, decades before mass distribution of newspapers, and long before radio, television, the Gallup Poll or Internet chat groups, Abraham Lincoln said, "public opinion in this country is everything."

The true winner of the election will be the side that wins over public opinion when all is said and done.

It should have been clear from the morning of November 8, and it should be very clear now, that unless one candidate or the other makes a tactical decision to withdraw, there will be no victor until the very last constitutional moment when the Congress must certify the results.

Since the Bush people have already signaled that they plan to push their case to the last minute, by using the Florida legislature to overturn, if there is one, a court-certified Gore victory, only Gore might find it in his interest to make a tactical withdrawal before the certification vote in Congress (or the Supreme Court case challenging that certification).

"Americans," people say, "hate a sore loser."

But nobody likes a quitter.

The knock on Al Gore is that he combines unbridled ambition with a weak chin. That there is no there there, no principles or backbone. That he got where he is by being the right person in the right place at the right time -- his father's son, Bill Clinton's V.P. That he is a sheep in (an alpha) wolf's clothing.

Of course, the knock on George W. Bush is that he is a sheep.

It is okay to be ambitious so long as you do not flinch or whine. Nothing disheartened the Democratic Party more than Jimmy Carter's early concession in 1980. That set the tone for the Democratic bewilderment of the early Reagan years.

It is not okay to be weak. Not if you want to be President.

If Gore quits before exhausting all his remedies, he will validate the worst aspects of his image. He needs to hang tough.

If Gore hangs tough, if he continues the fight, he will either win or he will choose his moment to concede. In neither event will he be a loser, sore or otherwise.
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