Vice President Al Gore wants us to "spend the days necessary" to figure out truly who is the next president of the United States.
That should certainly last longer than Tuesday, the deadline imposed by Florida's Republican secretary of state. But not much longer. If by Friday, when Florida's absentee ballots are supposed to be counted, Gore still remains behind there, then he should gracefully step aside. His only legitimate chance rests with Florida's absentee Jewish voters in Israel. If they are not enough to put him over the top, then it should be over.
Why? Because after that, Republican arguments, cynically motivated as they may be, take on increasing merit. Taking Gore's statement to its logical conclusion -- the presidency, he said, should not be determined by "a few votes cast in error or not counted or misinterpreted" -- the recount would indeed never end, as James Baker has suggested. It's a shame that the bubbes in Palm Beach County punched the wrong hole, or didn't punch it firmly enough. But the Republicans are again right: It happens all the time. And if, because of such errors, there is to be a wholesale recount in Florida, then why not, as the Republicans argue, in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and other states where the vote was close? For that matter, why not the country as a whole? There must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of similar "errors" out there.
If I'm a Bush voter in California -- where Gore won by a mile -- shouldn't I have my vote recounted if I, too, accidentally blew it in the polling booth?
There is also a sense -- and I say this as a Gore voter -- that the vice president does not deserve to emerge the victor. He had the most successful peacetime economy at his back. He was the most powerful and, by all accounts, accomplished vice president in American history, running against an opponent who doesn't know the difference between a nationality and a hair-coloring formula. This was Gore's landslide to lose. Pandering, hectoring, sighing intolerantly, careening from alpha male to pussycat, Gore appears to have tried every way he knew how to lose. If the contrary hand of God does not intervene by Friday, the man should be allowed his wish.
If God sees it my way, He may be doing Gore a great favor. An inept campaign does not bode well for a competent administration at the best of times. And this isn't one of them. Every president who has emerged from a divided election like this one has been doomed to failure from the start. A Gore administration would not only face a Republican Congress even more thuggish than before (witness Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott's venomous remarks about Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton), but an economy edging toward the chute even before swearing in. Forget about targeted tax cuts; think about a Middle East war, an oil embargo and lines at the gas pumps, and the word "recession."
If it's any comfort to Gore, President George W. Bush may be even worse off. If numbers hold, he will be a president who lost the popular vote, facing a country already doubtful of his ability to handle the affairs of state, and a Democratic opposition (plus Sen. John McCain, who is itching for revenge for the seamy South Carolina primary) with no reason to give him an inch. A one-term presidency looks like a pretty good bet; a Democratic sweep of the 2002 midterm elections a near-certainty.
In defeat, on the other hand, Al Gore, who ran, he constantly reminded us, as his "own man," may in defeat finally achieve that state. Free from the need to please and unshackled from the demand, monstrously imposed by his parents, to be president of the United States no matter what, Gore may use the time for the benefit of himself, his party and his country. In 2004, he will be only 56 years old; perhaps not tanned -- remembering his prophetic early warnings about global warming -- but rested, and this time genuinely ready.