It would be one thing if all this misery were being visited only upon Al Gore. There‘s a kind of rough justice, after all, in this most inept of candidates having his fate determined by the Palm Beach County election officials who devised the butterfly ballot, delayed the hand re-count for several days, took Thanksgiving day off and then missed their re-count deadline by two hours. In the infinite innumeracy of Theresa LePore and her fellow counters, the infinite doggedness of Al Gore may finally have met its match.

Whether or not Al Gore deserves such incompetence, or the timidity of the Dade County tabulators, or the chicanery of the Katherine Harrises and Tom DeLays is, finally, beside the point. It is the nation that now stands at the brink of having a presidential election outcome subverted by fools and knaves, and that awaits with trepidation the very likely presidency of W. the Unready. And just in case it sets a precedent, the notion of selecting a president by refusing to count votes should inspire a certain general nervousness as well.

The Florida courts still could turn the election around, of course. The Gore folks are contesting the outcome in a Tallahassee courtroom, and they can point to the 10,750 presidential votes in Dade County that the machines didn’t register, the 215 in Palm Beach that trickled in just after the deadline, the 51 votes in Nassau County that were arbitrarily lopped from Al Gore‘s total.

But can Gore bear the law’s delay? It‘s not likely that Judge N. Sanders Sauls can, or will — even giving Saturday’s scheduled hearing — hasten the course of justice so that he can rule on these matters before the middle of next week, and that ruling is sure to be appealed. Any re-count following that appeal would bump up directly against the December 12 deadline for designating electors. Al Gore is certainly not a dollar short, but he may well be a day late.

And during this time, public impatience is likely to mount. The Republicans‘ rush to judgment in this election is greatly abetted by the public’s ignorance of how long it normally takes to actually count and re-count votes. How many Californians who are complaining about the time that Florida has taken to do its re-count realize that in California, the counting of November‘s votes — not the re-count, the initial count — is still going on, that it won’t be finished until next week? That in the Dianne Feinstein–Michael Huffington U.S. Senate race of 1994, the re-count didn‘t wrap up until the third week of January 1995? That in high-tech Washington state, the initial counting didn’t end until November 22, and that the re-count of the Slade Gorton–Maria Cantwell Senate contest won‘t be completed until December 7?

If time is Al Gore’s enemy, votes are George W.‘s. It has been the policy of his campaign at every juncture to leave them uncounted. In the case of Palm Beach County, this entailed no more than literally adhering to the Supreme Court’s deadline, but in Dade, more drastic measures were required. Fortunately, the Republicans had shock troops handy who were accustomed to getting around the will of the voters, though the business lobbyists among them normally prefer flouting the public through the more decorous process of crafting special-interest legislation. But this was no time for decorum. ”Almost every lobbyist, political organizer, consulting group with ties to the Republicans was represented“ in the crowd that stormed the Dade County canvassing office last Wednesday, one GOP official told The New York Times.

The crunch came as Dade County prepared to count the roughly 10,750 presidential ballots its creaking computers had failed to read. Fearful that these ballots came ”mostly from Democratic precincts,“ in the assessment of Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who has emerged as the John Reed of the Republican rising, the GOP henchmen started pounding on walls and waving their fists, chasing election officials from their desks and stray Democrats down stairwells. As Gigot tells it, ”Street-smart New York Rep. John Sweeney, a visiting GOP monitor, told an aide to ‘shut it down,’ and semi-spontaneous combustion took over.“ It was a rare instance, Gigot continues, of Republicans ”fighting like Democrats.“

And, divorcing the demonstration from its goals, Gigot is absolutely right: Democrats — or, more accurately leftists — frequently do shout and wave their fists; they, too, have been known to shout, ”Shut it down!“ If it‘s not unpardonably vulgar to move on to the question of purposes, however, I can’t think of any instances when the American left has tried to shut down voting. Indeed, I can recall quite a number of struggles where the left, most especially in places like Florida, had to work for the better part of the century to open it up. In many instances, this entailed the risk of real physical danger; in some instances, people died. Gigot‘s crusaders, on the other hand, were given rooms in the local Hiltons that were put on Tom DeLay’s tab, and were serenaded at a private party the next night by Wayne Newton. If Gigot finds some moral equivalence in all this, he‘s even less of a Wayne Newton fan than I am.

It was not love of Wayne Newton — nor, more to the point, of George W. Bush — that got the Republicans down to Dade in the first place, of course; it was hatred of Clinton-Gore, a term that for GOP activists has come to stand for monstrous evil incarnate. This has no real equivalent on the other side of the political aisle. The Democrats are capable of bursts of reactive hatred in response to such matters as impeachment and last week’s Dade disfranchisement, but the Republican hatred is a constant, since the mere existence of secularism — and Democrats — seems sufficient to trigger it. Which is why what we‘ve seen over the past couple of weeks was best described by Yeats: ”The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.“

It’s going on a month now that W. has been approaching the presidency, and he has been shrinking steadily throughout that time. He has been delegating the business of the transition to Dick Cheney, and that of formulating policy to some of his dad‘s old advisers. More remarkably, he has left the task of making the case for his presidency to Jim Baker. Ronald Reagan left the formulation of policy to his underlings, but he was the one who delivered the message, who sounded the broad themes. If the past three weeks are any guide, W. doesn’t feel any more comfortable with the big picture than the small one.

I can‘t recall a speech in which a presidential hopeful looked more miserable than the one W. delivered on Sunday night, proclaiming his victory. Plainly, Bush knew neither what to say nor how to say it. He offered no consolation to furious Democrats; rather, he chose to trot out a few possible points of agreement with right-wing Congressional ”Blue Dog“ Democrats. He spoke of their ”common ground“ on Social Security reform and eliminating specific taxes — hardly the kind of broad visionary statement that is required at such moments, and hardly positions on which there’s much Democratic agreement. A handful of Congressional Democrats do support the Breaux-Thomas Social Security ”reform,“ which would raise the retirement age and lower benefits, but not enough to guarantee its passage. To the rest of the Democrats, and to much of the nation, this idea engenders a good deal more alarm than reassurance.

W. is doubtless aware that he needs to sound conciliatory, visionary and purposeful all at once during the coming weeks, a daunting task made more so by the fact that he is in reality none of these things. On Sunday, his response to this challenge was to appear as if he did not wish to be there at all. Plowing doggedly ahead, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed, he seemed to be — I‘m striving for delicacy here — not so much delivering his speech as excreting it. At the brink of power, this birdbrain is feeling bolts of mortal terror. He’s not alone.

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