Photo by Stephan Sovoia/AP

On the theory that purgatory is, if nothing else, better than hell, I suppose I should be grateful the United States hasn’t gone to the devil just quite yet. At the end of one of the most astonishing, bewildering, intermittently exhilarating and nauseating evenings in American political history (I’m writing at 5 on Wednesday morning), Al Gore still has not lost. He’s trailing W-boy by roughly 1,800 votes in Florida, and there’s reportedly been a small screwup in one Florida county — miscalibrating the voting machines so that Gore votes were counted as Buchanan votes — that may just make up that 1,800-vote difference. The Florida vote will go to a recount later on Wednesday, and there are absentee ballots still to be counted, which doesn’t sound good to me. But then, if there’s anything the punditocracy, present company included, should have learned from this confounding and confounded night, it’s that we should refrain from making all these goddamn predictions.

Who among us, after all, predicted that Al Gore would win the popular vote and yet quite possibly lose in the Electoral College? That the Democrats would pick up the four contested House seats in California (and almost get a fifth they weren’t really gunning for) and still fail to retake the Congress? That Ralph Nader would bomb at the polls (getting roughly 3 percent of the national vote), but still win enough votes to deny the Democrats the White House, at least on Tuesday night — and likely for the next four years?

Come to think of it, this last point was something that a number of rightly apprehensive progressives repeatedly predicted. Consider the numbers: Gore is trailing Bush by 1,800 votes in Florida, where Nader’s vote, though just 2 percent of the total, is 97,000. In New Hampshire, Bush beat Gore by 7,200 votes, while Nader pulled down 22,150. In Oregon, with roughly 80 percent of the vote in, Gore is trailing Bush by about 22,000 votes, while Nader has won 54,000. I mention these last two states because, even if Gore loses Florida, the combination of New Hampshire and Oregon would have gotten him to 271 electoral votes — good enough for a two-vote victory in the Electoral College.

Which is to say, while we still don’t know who won on Tuesday, we can be sure who one of the biggest losers is: the Green Party. By running dismally on the presidential line yet managing to ensure W.’s almost-election, it has appalled, infuriated and sickened the vast majority of American progressives whose support is critical if it is to have any shot at survival, let alone growth. Worse yet, in the last 10 days of the campaign, Ralph Nader made a special point of holding rallies in states where he had no chance of getting anywhere near 5 percent of the vote, but could still damage Al Gore. One such state, which he visited just a few days ago, was Florida.

But the self-destruction of the Green Party is mighty cold comfort weighed against the specter of the Bush Fratboy Restoration and all that entails. To be sure, Bush’s margin, should he win, and the Republicans’ margins of control in both the Senate and the House are all but nonexistent. The GOP will likely have no more than a 51-49 majority in the Senate, and a margin of just a few votes in the House. The Democrats are so close in the Senate, in fact, that there’s bound to be avid interest in the health of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms over the next two years. (Each would be replaced by an appointee of a Democratic governor.) In what will otherwise be a grim political interval, the Thurmond-Helms Watch may provide fun for the entire family.

What this means is that Republicans will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time since 1953-54 — the height of McCarthyism, for the nostalgic among you — yet have their freedom of maneuver circumscribed by the narrowness of their majorities. With the Democratic gains in Tuesday’s election, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill will now be only three or four votes from a filibuster-proof 60 in the Senate, though W. has vowed to veto it. There’s also now a clear majority in the Senate (though not 60 votes) for prescription-drug coverage.

Anything truly radical that W. proposes, meanwhile, will itself be blocked by a Democratic filibuster. A tax cut on the superduper scale he’s proposed, one that showers nearly half its largess on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, will be dead on arrival. Privatizing Social Security will probably remain a pipe dream at best, though you never know how the Democrats’ own market maniacs will respond if it’s done discreetly.

Other changes, less high-profile but tremendously dangerous for the poor, may have better prospects. In 2002, the Congress must revisit the food-stamp, child-health-care and welfare programs, and there’s a real chance, says Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, that what are now entitlements to individuals will be transformed into block grants to the states — which could well mean major cutbacks in the aid and services available to the working poor particularly.

Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman, the Democrats’ leading architect of federal health and environmental standards, fears that Bush will also “try to make Medicaid into a block-grant program, which could eliminate any guarantees of adequate medical care for the very poor, even in nursing homes. There could be no federal standards for eligibility, no entitlement to services, just a pot of money for the states to use as they see fit. If your state hits its limit, you could end up on your own.”

As with health, so with the environment. Bush has pledged to authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and environmental activists expect him to de-designate some of the lands that President Clinton set aside as national monuments. These actions would occasion battles around some very tangible and beautiful tracts of land, however; the environmental groups would have no trouble rallying a great deal of public opposition to such proposals.

But exciting concern over a dog that doesn’t bark in the night — over, say, the Bush administration’s failure to do anything about the Kyoto Protocol on global warming — will be far more difficult. Organizing against sins of omission, which in a Bush administration will be legion, is the hardest kind of organizing there is. A proposal to privatize Social Security will provoke a torrent of opposition, but there aren’t likely to be many marchers protesting a failure to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In fact, all thoughts of making America’s safety net a little more secure will be downright ridiculous. “We’ll be fighting with all our resources to maintain a lousy status quo in health care,” says Skip Roberts, national legislative director of the Service Employees International Union.

Politically, at least, the Republicans now have total responsibility for what Washington does, as they have not since the first two years of the Eisenhower presidency. And given the narrowness of their margin, they have a very limited ability to get anything done. For the Democrats, this is an opportunity, though one they’d rather not have; for the nation, this is a crisis.

There will be time enough to fret about what will happen to the uninsured, the nonwhite, the nonstraight, the nonaffluent if Bush prevails. For now, we can brood on Al Gore’s failure to have a coherent message for his fall campaign, just as he failed to have one for the spring. Only on the night in August when he accepted his party’s nomination did he clearly define his candidacy — and that was enough to catapult him into the lead for nearly two months thereafter. We can brood on a man so unsure of his merit that he was constantly polishing up the smallest details of his résumé, and on a party so unsure of its identity that its major funders and its volunteer cadres are diametrically opposed on the central issue of our time, globalization. We can brood on the thought that if Gore loses this, one of the three Democratic front-runners in 2004 will be our very own Gray Davis.

Or, we can brood on the thought of George W. Bush as president. (What was it that French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing said after his first meeting with Ronald Reagan? “Je n’ai jamais rencontré un tel imbecile” — “I have never met such an imbecile.” Valéry, you spoke too soon.) We can brood on how a republic that once elected Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt is today on the verge of entrusting the most powerful office in the world to this dimwit.

Once upon a time, we were a serious country, though I don’t know how we’ll get our children to believe it.

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