The theme of the day, according to Brookings Institution fellow and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, was "Honey who blew up our electoral system?" If you want a digest form of the arguments for expanded government you'll be hearing over the next few years, this influential D.C. think tank is the place to go. I went there the day after the election—well, Election Day, anyway—to check out a standing-room-only panel on where we go from here. Even a few minutes spent not knowing America's ultimate leader is scary as hell for the good-government liberal folks at Brookings (and many others in this one-company town). So no one smiled or chuckled, much less applauded, when Dionne said the presidential election had produced "a serious crisis of legitimacy in our government."
Thomas Mann, another Brookings fellow, pointed out that we may end up with a president who lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote mostly because a bunch of geezers in Palm Beach can't read a ballot. "If nothing else changes, we will all know that Al Gore in effect won Florida," pronounced Mann. "But George Bush will be declared the winner of Florida and on the basis of that become the president of the United States."
Whether that constitutes a "crisis" is a judgment call. Here's the real thing: If the old ladies from Palm Beach who were screaming on MSNBC last night are in fact incapable of reading a ballot properly, they are definitely too infirm to be driving to the polls or anywhere else in the Sunshine State. They pose a more immediate danger to fellow citizens as drivers than as voters. Accidentally electing a guy who has his own driving problems just doesn't compare.
Mann discounted the split between the popular and electoral votes as no big deal. "We have a constitutional system and the rules of the game call for a majority of the electoral college." In fact, he called on Al Gore to pull a Richard Nixon, circa 1960, for the good of the country. Tricky Dick, said Mann, "did an honorable thing when he conceded the election even though there were questions raised about the legitimacy of the count in Illinois and Texas, two states that, had they gone Republican, would have made Richard Nixon president of the United States. It may well be that Al Gore is going to have to suck it up and concede the election to George W. Bush."
That was the bad news for Gore–everyone on the panel basically assumed a Bush presidency and then offered advice on putting together a governing coalition. The bad news for the country is this: Their idea of a governing coalition is one that delivers more government.
"If Democrats sense that the first unified government in 48 years is trying to go full-speed ahead with an agenda that seems not to have been embraced enthusiastically by the electorate, I can imagine them getting ugly and ornery," said Mann, obviously worried about seeing David Bonoir (D-Mich.), Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on the yak shows at the same time he's angling for administration jobs for his liberal friends. "It may make sense, if Bush is ultimately certified as the president, to think creatively about his cabinet appointments, appointing some Democrats there."
"The next Congressional Budget Office forecast may project a surplus that is even larger than what we had in the campaign," prophesied Robert Litan, Brookings' vice president and its director of government studies. He stumped for a compromise based on the old "honor among thieves" code: "Money makes the world go round. And if in fact there's more money, there's room for a deal, where Republicans get some of theirs, Democrats get some of theirs, and you have a happy scenario worked out." Happy, I might add, for those in D.C. spending the money, not for those outside actually earning it and sending it to the feds.
"We can either have gridlock or bipartisanship," declared Isabel Sawhill, another Brookings fellow. She was charged with considering the election's implications for domestic policy, but her most interesting comments were a novel interpretation of the apparently total GOP victory. At the very moment the Republicans had managed to keep control of Congress and win the presidency, explained Sawhill, "the conservative revolution that many associate with Ronald Reagan, in both an ideological and intellectual sense, has lost a lot of earlier energy."
Her advice to Bush was to scrap his income tax cut-surprise!-and instead cut the payroll tax that funds Social Security (on condition that folks save the money). Such advice is Machiavellian to the max, since it would allow Sawhill, her colleagues at Brookings, and other liberals to attack Dubya for gutting the system, hence improving the electoral chances of Democrats in 2002.
Whatever. Maybe by then we'll at least know who the president is. In the meantime, I say relax and enjoy these days without a federal budget or even a president-elect. Taxes aren't going up and there are no new programs in the offing. That may scare the hell out of the bleary-eyed folks at Brookings, but it's fine by me.