A mandate denied
From the beginning, the US presidential election was Al Gore's to lose and he has come perilously close to doing so.
The final decision rested entirely on a recount in Florida, which - thanks to absentee ballots - may not be officially completed for days. The margin between the Vice-President and Republican rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush, was around 1,700 votes in a state total of nearly six million. The situation is unprecedented. If Mr Gore captures Florida and therefore victory, he will take obvious pleasure in gaining a four-year lease on the White House. But any celebration will be muted by the realisation that he did so by the narrowest possible margin and will face Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, though with reduced majorities.
By normal standards, the incumbent Vice-President should have won going away. He had the benefit of nine years of economic prosperity, a lack of foreign crises and, in the beginning, an opponent who seemed flawed. But Mr Gore suffered from the sleaze legacy of the Bill Clinton administration, and his stiff personality won only limited public enthusiasm for his cause. Mr Bush, by contrast, gained credibility as the campaign went on.
No matter who finally wins, the narrow margin almost guarantees that the next president will not solve the main domestic issues he inherits. With no clear mandate for anything, and a sharply divided Congress, about the best to be expected are interim solutions for long-term problems.
Chief among them is the national social security (pension) system, which will run out of money in about 35 years unless benefits are cut or revenues are increased. The solutions of both candidates have grave weaknesses. Likewise, Medicare, a national health plan that omits many millions, will go broke even sooner without major revisions. Again, both candidates have flawed repair plans. Similarly, neither has an entirely credible policy for fixing the nation's troubled education system. In addition, both have bold programmes for cutting or revising federal taxes.
Both candidates say their plans can be financed by a continued economic boom, another dubious assumption. With Congress unlikely to support anything innovative, the results will be incremental solutions which bear little resemblance to the much grander plans both men promised during the campaign.