Prolonged drama reveals depth of America's divide

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2000, 12:00am

'I'm a uniter not a divider,' Republican George W. Bush repeated to the point of cliche on the campaign trail.

Increasingly, it is clear that he carries no more powerful a phrase in his political armoury should he finally make the presidency after an electoral saga of titanic proportions.

The drama of the past few days has confirmed the extent of the fissures across America's political and legal establishments exposed by the closest election in living memory. With no neutral arbiter, such as a royal family or international commission sitting astride America's fiercely democratic system, it will fall to the next president to patch things up.

In backing Mr Bush's appeal to halt the court-ordered re-counts on Saturday, the Supreme Court split five-four down the middle with its majority conservatives on one side and its liberal-leaning judges on the other. With the justices due to formally consider a definitive ruling today, the divide was proving the source of considerable partisan friction over the weekend.

'Right now I am not optimistic about anything,' California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told yesterday's New York Times. For the first time, she had a sense that what was evolving was a 'morass of uncertainty . . . it is hard for me to believe that the US Supreme Court has a role in this. It just increases the polarisation. How do we put the bricks together and work for the benefit of this nation?'

Similar divisions were exposed within the Florida Supreme Court when it threw the Democratic camp of Al Gore a legal lifeline on Friday. Its judges - Democratic appointees - ruled four-three in favour of a state-wide re-count of some 43,000 disputed votes. Their decision also further highlighted divisions across Florida, whittling back Mr Bush's lead to just 154 votes out of six million cast across the Sunshine State. And if the impasse cannot be settled by the Electoral College next Monday, it will be up to an increasingly divided Congress to settle, according to the constitution.

Here America's divided voters worked their lethargic magic as well, leaving the Senate, the Upper House, split 50-50 and further tightened a narrow Republican hold over the House of Representatives. The divisions neatly reflect the wider split in the popular vote.

With little more than half of the 200 million eligible voters bothering to turn out, Mr Gore scored just 300,000 more votes than Mr Bush - less than one per cent. Here the divide is at its most mystifying. Perhaps there would be no split at all if the missing other half of ordinary Americans had exercised their choice.