TCS Daily

Republican Virtue in Nervous America

By Ryan H. Sager - October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

America is nervous.

As we enter the final week of the campaign, there's one question that haunts practically every conversation: Who will win on Nov. 2 -- Bush, Kerry or utter chaos?

With election lawsuits already underway in Florida and Ohio, it's starting to look like our only chance at an uncontested election is if one of the campaigns has saved up a truly spectacular October surprise, like Osama bin Laden in a cage ... and a Kerry-Edwards '04 T-shirt. But, with the country as polarized as it is, who knows if even that could sway the famous "undecideds" (who, by the way, at this point are clearly just looking for attention).

So, assuming that no outside force is likely to trigger a landslide, America faces the prospect of once again having to navigate the aftermath of a 50-50 election.

At such a time, America would need both candidates to be leaders, putting the interests of the country above their own while working together to guide the machinery of our democracy to a fair outcome.

What America would get at such a time, of course, is two rabid ferrets tearing each other's fur out -- both of them trying to act "statesmanlike."

Note the Kerry camp's trial balloon last week, in which advisers told the Associated Press that the senator "will not hesitate to declare victory" on Nov. 2. This, according to the story, is meant to avoid the fatal mistake made by the Gore campaign in 2000, which, one supposes, was to concede after receiving fewer electoral votes.

The Bush team's not likely to fight any more cleanly, raising the disturbing possibility of both campaigns laying conflicting claims to the presidency.

Even in 2000, when Al Gore forced the Supreme Court into the role of referee, we didn't have that. Despite the rancor, despite the tension, despite the energy exerted, Americans were still fighting a battle about the law. Kerry's strategy, on the other hand, would be better suited to a banana republic -- where disputed elections turn not on the law, but on who can seize power in the public's mind.

It would be nice if there were an easy way to safeguard against this nonsense, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for optimism on that front. People often blame the electoral college for the mess in Florida, but, more likely, it was the only thing preventing the nation as a whole from becoming one big battleground state -- with party lawyers chasing ballots all over the country in pursuit of a popular-vote majority.

Likewise, a federal bill aimed at modernizing the nation's voting machinery has given us one of the least promising innovations in a long time: electronic voting (sans paper trail).

No, the only thing that can save us, ultimately, is a resuscitation of the idea of "republican virtue." That's small-r republican, of course.

While the founders of this nation designed our system of government with a keen eye to the baser nature of man -- the part that seeks power at any cost -- they knew that the survival of the republic ultimately depended on leaders somewhat more virtuous.

Perhaps the most important precedent in this country's history was set when George Washington, after two terms as president, voluntarily relinquished his office. It is that ability, to willingly give up power, that constitutes true statesmanship in the American sense.

Al Gore, for whatever faults he's shown since, touched on this sentiment beautifully in his concession speech on December 13, 2000. In it, he quoted what Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln after being defeated for the presidency: "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you."

What's unfortunate, of course, is that Gore could only be led to his graceful exit by the forceful hand of the Supreme Court. He could have spared the country much anguish at the time, and much division over the past four years, if he had acquiesced earlier.

Kerry and Bush may now come to face similar choices. There can be no doubt that either candidate would concede readily if his opponent were to win by a comfortable margin. But the test of each man's republican virtue will come if the election is close.

How many recounts would either man force the country to endure for his own narrow gain? Kerry, it seems, is ready to rumble. President Bush -- well, as they say, don't mess with Texas.

If such a dispute comes to pass, however, both candidates will likely be surprised just how little patience the American people have for foolishness right now, in the middle of a war. The public could prove quite nostalgic for the statesmen who once graced our national stage.

May the best man concede.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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