Inside the beltway: No matter who is finally sworn into office next year, he'll surely face a contentious four years

By the time this appears, Americans may know who will be inaugurated as president on January 20, 2001, but we will surely have learned some salutary lessons along the way.

By the time this appears, Americans may know who will be inaugurated as president on January 20, 2001, but we will surely have learned some salutary lessons along the way.

By the time this appears, Americans may know who will be inaugurated as president on January 20, 2001, but we will surely have learned some salutary lessons along the way.

Lesson 1: distrust the polls. Except for CBS and John Zogby - who were also right in 1996 - they were all wrong, dramatically wrong, most by from 5% to 8%, on the popular vote. They will change the size of their sample, they will cast a wider net, but they have lost whatever trust they had earned. Every observer - who had no stake - saw a Gore uptick (even a surge) in the last few days, but no poll caught it except Zogby's.

Lesson 2: be careful about network election-night projections. Since all counting was turned over to a central election service to save money 30 years ago, gross numbers from a state are virtually all that are available.

The early Florida projections, for example, excluded votes from the central time zone, and the later call for Bush ignored that remaining votes were from the Democratic stronghold of Daytona Beach.

Lesson 3: don't confuse PR with election results. No amount of spin about 'hand count irregularities' or scenes of Governor George Bush and Dick Cheney sagely selecting their cabinet, could hide the fact the Republicans had gone to court to stop a recount. As the Gore folks said, accurately gauging public opinion, 'no politician should fear a recount.' They could have added that everyone who has relied on a computerized list knows it's inaccurate. Governor Bush, relying on some hand counts and fighting others in the courts, and presiding over a state which makes hand counts the final authority, lost both the PR battle and the counties in question.

Lesson 4: watch your language. Leaders in both parties crossed lines of civility that were once thought to be set in stone. TV news gave forums - alas - to 'spokespersons' for each side to state extreme views of the other, and the GOP's gross mistake of trying to stop a vote count by going to court cost it heavily, even as James Baker and others tried to turn a weak legal case into a moral issue.

The result: whoever raises his hand at noon on Inauguration Day - the winner can count on at least two, and possibly four, angry, difficult and frustrating years.

Thin and changing margins in both Houses make the problems difficult enough; worse will be the president's knowledge a sizeable percentage of the people will believe him to be serving illegally and hence with an illegitimate mandate. Politics, it is said, 'ain't beanbag,' but it shouldn't be an incitement to civil war, either.



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