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Western Press Review: U.S. Supreme Court Decision's Effect On Presidency

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 13 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Western -- and particularly the American press -- is preoccupied with yesterday's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that appears likely to dash the hopes of Democratic candidate Al Gore for the U.S. presidency. In a divided ruling, the country's highest court reversed a decision by Florida's Supreme Court that had ordered the hand recount of some ballots from the November 7 election. Gore had hoped that a recount would erase the narrow lead in the state of his Republican rival George W. Bush, and thereby make him president.


In an editorial, the New York Times writes that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision "comes at considerable cost to the public trust and the tradition of fair elections." But, the editorial continues, the nation's history bears the comforting lesson that the American people's confidence in the rule of law and the stability of their institutions will not be damaged in the long run. The paper says: "It is incumbent on citizens and elected officials alike to respect the authority of the ruling and the legitimacy of the new presidency whether or not they agree with the court's legal reasoning."

In the short term, the editorial continues, "Mr. Bush and Vice President Al Gore bear great responsibility for bringing the nation together in spirit if not in immediate political agreement. Mr. Bush needs to be gracious and unifying in victory, and Vice President Gore must master the difficult task of placing the national need for continuity ahead of any bitterness he may feel."


A New York Times news analysis by R.W. Apple, Jr., is titled "a shaky platform on which to build." Apple says that whatever else it did, the Supreme Court failed to speak with the kind of clarion political voice about the vexed 2000 presidential election that much of the nation had hoped for.

The analyst writes: "If, as seems sure, Gov. George W. Bush has won, he has won a narrow victory -- narrow in Florida, narrow in the [U.S.] Electoral College and narrow in the Supreme Court. He will have only a shaky platform from which to begin his presidency in January, and it will require immense skill to remove the questions about his legitimacy that were left hanging by tonight's decision."

Apple goes on to say that the court provided no clear, unanimous validation of the electoral process: "Its extraordinarily complex ruling led to widespread confusion in the first few minutes after it was issued, and it may well provide ammunition in the months ahead for embittered supporters of [Gore], whose chances seemed to have been sorely and in all probability fatally damaged."


In the Washington Post, veteran analyst David Broder writes in similar vein. He says that the Supreme Court has apparently handed Bush the key to the White House, "but in a fashion that gave Democrats an issue they are certain to trumpet over the coming months and years, according to the first reaction in the political world."

Broder says further that, "if the ruling settled the question of the identity of the next president, it left unanswered all the issues about public acceptance of the result and the reaction of the Democrats whose help Bush will need to pass any major legislative initiatives."

He continues: "Democrats came out of the 2000 election with gains in both the House and Senate, and are counting on the traditional mid-term gains for the opposition party to give them a good chance of securing majorities in both those chambers in 2002." However, notes Broder, Republicans -- at least for the moment -- are enjoying the prospect of controlling the White House, the Senate, and House for the first time in almost 50 years.


From overseas, in the left-of-center British daily Guardian, comes a commentary by Jonathan Freedland which argues that the United States "is currently disunited, split in every institution through which the nation expresses itself." He says the fight for the presidency is a point of division instead of the usual unity. And he adds: "[Look at the Congress] where you will find Republicans and Democrats separated in the House of Representatives by just five votes. Walk along the corridor, where the Senate is split exactly 50-50. Out in the country, state legislatures are equally divided: of the 50 states, Republicans control both chambers in 17, with 16 in the hands of Democrats. All the rest are deadlocked."

Even the nation's judges are split, writes Freedland: "Florida's highest court ruled for Gore last week by four votes to three, only to be rapidly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which divided 5-4. Add them up and you get 16 senior judges, split exactly 8-8."


In a commentary for the pro-Democrat Boston Globe, Paul C. Light looks at the practical drawbacks of having the presidential election drag on so long. He writes: "The continued delays do create the very real possibility that the next president will still be assembling his Cabinet and making policy choices long after the 2004 presidential campaign begins."


Also in the Boston Globe, Jack Balkin returns to the theme of legitimacy. In a commentary written before last night's ruling, he says that, "like some dreadful pestilence, the presidential election of 2000 seems to eat away at the legitimacy of every institution it touches." He argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has become its latest victim. Balkin says that by attempting to shore up Bush's legitimacy, the Supreme Court has strongly compromised its own: "This is hubris, the stuff of classical tragedy. Let us hope the court's blunder in this case does not lead to a larger, genuine national tragedy."


A commentary in the pro-Republican Washington Times by Bruce Bartlett dwells more on the practical political challenges facing Bush. Bartlett says a major problem for the new president will be that "a significant percentage of the population is going to believe Mr. Bush stole the election." This, he says, is going to deprive Bush of the stature and legitimacy that most voters automatically give a new president, even when he is not of their party.

Bartlett mentions other problems Bush will likely face: "[He] is going to have to cope with a rapidly slowing economy that could very well turn into a recession early next year." That situation, the commentator notes, could favor the Democrats in the 2002 elections.

In addition, writes Bartlett, "the narrow Republican majorities in Congress and the good prospects for Democrats in 2002, plus the election fallout, are going to make Mr. Bush's dealings with Congress extremely trying." But, he argues, in adversity there is opportunity: "Mr. Bush will have a very early chance to show whether he has the makings of greatness or whether all the awful things Democrats believe about him are true."


On a day when most analysts are warning about the dangers of the Supreme Court's ruling, a commentary in the Los Angeles Times takes a contrary view, defending the action of the highest court. Under the title, "Florida's Supreme Court deserved slapping around," Michael Uhlmann says that "the Florida Supreme Court has now acquired the dubious honor of being stepped on twice in one week by the U.S. Supreme Court."

In the first case, says Uhlmann, the Florida justices were reminded -- diplomatically but firmly -- that they were a court, not a legislature, and that altering state election law by judicial "interpretation" could easily run afoul of federal statutory and constitutional provisions. Uhlmann writes: "Unchastened by the first spanking, four Florida justices walked into the valley of death: They revised Florida's election code a second time in a manner even more egregious than the first."

He goes on to say that one need not impute sinister partisan motives to the four Florida judges "when a simpler explanation will do: indefensibly sloppy judicial work. Given the political passion and legal confusion engendered by the first decision," Uhlmann concludes, "the second bordered on the irresponsible. And the U.S. Supreme Court would have been derelict had it failed to say so."


A commentary in the current issue of the magazine Business Week by Lee Walczak says that for business executives, the immediate concern is pragmatic: Can Bush -- whose communication skills Walczak says "struck many as uninspiring at best" -- rally the country? "Can he," he also asks, "resist the tendency to equate victory with validation and condense an ambitious conservative platform into a sparer, more centrist agenda?"

Another big concern, Walczak says, is the darkening economic climate. "Yet," he says, "it is by no means certain that a downturn -- if one materializes next year -- would be Bush's undoing. Typically, a slump that hits early in a new administration is blamed on the preceding White House crew."