Just suppose

What if it had been Mr. Bush who was a few votes short?

Issue: "Gore strikes out," Dec. 9, 2000

Just suppose: If the original close count in Florida had gone the other way in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, would Election 2000 have extended for several weeks of recounting and litigation? Some claim that if George W. Bush had found himself 500 or 1,000 votes short early that morning, he would have been just as quick to holler "Recount!" as Al Gore proved himself to be. We'll never know for sure. Certainly the razor-thin margins not just in Florida, but elsewhere in the country as well, carried huge potential to prompt any candidate to ask for a little extra proof that the counting had been accurate.

But I don't think Mr. Bush's campaign would ultimately have responded that way-or at least that they would have pursued their protest so relentlessly as the Democrats have done. Granted, the stakes have been high. This is not a race for some backwater congressional district. Profound opportunities to shape the nation's soul and its culture lie in the balance.

Even so, I believe that Gov. Bush, confronted with a vote deficit of the sort that Vice President Gore actually inherited, would have conceded the election earlier rather than later. He would have done so because the conservative mindset tends to be tuned more to the specifics of the governing rules. The liberal mindset is tuned more to feelings and emotions.

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I do not mean that altogether as a compliment to conservatives or a put-down of liberals. All of us have at one point or another in our lives, for very good reason, been inclined toward both mindsets. But it is a fair generalization.

We know the difference from the time we were little kids. Some of us grew up in homes where we absolutely didn't get to leave the table until our plates were clean. That was the rule. In other homes, only a meal-by-meal tug-of-war determined when dinner was over. It was the difference between living by rules that everyone acknowledged-or making up the rules on the fly.

Nowhere over the last month was the distinction more vividly displayed than during the now-famous hearing before the Florida Supreme Court. Republicans argued that Florida's rules had been carefully followed, that even a Democratic judge had said so, and that all voting should therefore end. Democrats wanted an extension of time for the manual recounting of certain counties' votes. David Boies, attorney for Mr. Gore, argued that "this court certainly has the power to say, 'What we're going to do is tell the county board that you've got this amount of time to complete your recount.'" But, Justice Major Harding asked, "Do we have information in the record that can guide us? Do we know how long it's going to take to do these things? Are we just going to reach up from some inspiration and put it down on paper?"

"I think it is in between," replied Mr. Boies. "... I think there is some information in the record. But to be completely candid with the court, I believe that there is going to have to be a lot of judgment applied by the court, as well."

A lot of judgment, indeed. In point of fact, Justice Harding the very next day joined with his six fellow judges to do exactly what he had seemed so skeptical about doing. Together, they "reached up from some inspiration and put it down on paper."

Political skeptics might say they did so because they were being loyal Democrats. I would argue instead that they did so because they were being consistent liberals. The liberal mindset is to make up the rules as you go along. Here was a group of judges genuinely concerned about a gaggle of folks whose ballots, because they were not in compliance with an established set of rules, were not going to be counted. Their natural inclination was, because of what they considered to be a higher good, to set aside the rules and make the higher good possible.

It is, of course, the very same mentality that suggests that "voter intent" must be sought out, that calendar deadlines are only arbitrary, that ignorance by a ballot caster is a very good excuse, or that requiring voter registration a week or two prior to an election is an undue inconvenience.

Here's a little rule of my own: The bigger the venue, the riskier it is to change the rules on the fly.

In other words, it's a little risky, but probably not devastating, for parents to decide at each meal when a particular plate is clear enough. It may even work for Dad to help junior clean up his plate by sneaking a couple of bites himself. It stretches the rule, but at least the rule gets obeyed.

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