A 'most improbable scenerio' has come to pass


Am I some kind of a smart guy?

Loyal readers may recall that I recently pointed out on these pages that even in very close elections one candidate always piled up a pretty hefty majority in the Electoral College, rendering the votes of any one state meaningless in the great scheme of things (HCN, 10/23/00: In presidential politics, the West has a bad hand).

What I said, actually, was that "even the closest presidential races aren't so close in the Electoral College," and that while "one could put together a scenario in which (a few) electoral votes are pivotal ... a most improbable scenario it would be."

Okay, okay. So the answer to the above question is - "No." I'm some kind of a dope.

But I'm in good company. At least I didn't prematurely announce a winner to the world, but then I'm only some kind of a dope, not a teevee news anchorman. But I'm intrepid, as I'm about to demonstrate; for at the moment, you, dear reader, have the advantage over me. By the time you read this, you may - repeat, may - know who will be the 43rd president of these United States. At the time I write this, I don't, though I am going to proceed on the assumption that George Bush will still be ahead in Florida after all the votes are counted and re-counted.

I will also proceed on the assumption that whatever voting irregularities occurred in the Sunshine State will not cross the threshold required to justify the intervention of the courts.

Would I bet my next month's mortgage payment on either of these assumptions? Not on your tintype, Edgar. But though I do not for a moment believe that 2,500 - or 25 - Jewish retirees in Palm Beach County meant to vote for Pat Buchanan, I suspect that, absent some evidence that officials deliberately sought to make that ballot as confusing as possible, the courts will stay out of the matter.

Does this raise the possibility that many voters - not just partisan Democrats but rank-and-file folks - will question the legitimacy of a Bush presidency? It does, especially because at this writing (late-counted absentee ballots could reverse this) Al Gore has the popular plurality. Indeed, Gore and Ralph Nader together - that is to say, the left-of-center public policy direction - have a small popular majority. But at this point the prudent observer (and even we dopes do learn from our mistakes) should go no further than to say that it raises the possibility.

It also segues into this probability: that a Bush presidency will begin ... well, not exactly crippled or tainted, but not politically hale and hearty, either. Yes, the putative president-elect is a charming fellow, and he is likely to behave in an appealing enough manner over these next few weeks to assuage some of the public anxiety about the election. He did get almost as many votes as Gore, sweeping much of the country, including almost all the South and the entire Rocky Mountain West. New Mexico was still teeter-tottering as we went to press.

Still, he would be well-advised to tread softly at first, especially because his party barely kept its majorities in both houses of Congress. If the new president wants to get much done, he will need at least some support from members of the other party. Picking fights is not the way to get such support.

So while vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney discussed the possibility of Bush overturning President Clinton's recent designations under the Antiquities Act, a Bush administration is unlikely to pursue that course. Bush might even keep Mike Dombeck on as Forest Service Chief for a while, though not for long.

In fact, the election was so close that the Forest Service has enough political leeway to go ahead with its proposal to lock in the roadless status of some 43 million acres of the national forests. Bush could seek to rescind that decision. But to do so would be to pick a fight not just with the opposition but with a majority of the people that did not vote for him. If nothing else, the squeaker probably guarantees Clinton's land legacy.

Probably. Because there will be other pressures on Bush, and behind these pressures will be men and women to whom he is indebted, counseling a less moderate course.

First, there is the West itself. To look at the county-by-county electoral map is to see an almost unbroken mass of Republican red in the eight Rocky Mountain states and the inland counties of the West Coast states. Most of it is darkish red, meaning Bush got more than 60 percent of the vote. In Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Idaho, there are only a few specks of Democratic blue.

This gives Republican leaders and their friends in those states a seat at the table of any Republican administration. Some of these friends are the movers and shakers of the natural-resource industries. The new president will not have to give this faction everything it wants. He will have to give it something. That's the way democracy is supposed to work.

Nor would the Republicans have to worry about political retribution from the region. In most of the West, the Democratic parties are all but impotent, able to carve out a congressional seat here and there, perhaps to make trouble on a specific issue from time to time, but not much of a threat otherwise. When this year began, Montana Democrats were licking their chops over their chances to retake the governor's office and the state's one House seat. They didn't come close in either one.

There will be national pressures, too. A tiny majority may not temper the ardor of House leaders such as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, not known for their temperance. Along with the conservative consultant class and their talk-radio appendages, they might urge a go-for-broke strategy. The new president, like all new presidents, will be tugged-at from at least two directions. Whoever he may be.

Jon Margolis watched the election returns from his home in Vermont.

Copyright HCN and Jon Margolis