A firm 'enough' - at least for one more day

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 12/10/2000

ASHINGTON - The ultimate umpire in American civic life has issued its opinion, and it is a shout and not a whisper: Enough.

The US Supreme Court's decision to end the recounts in Florida until it can consider the case came just short of ending the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore, whose White House hopes must end unless the recounts proceed. In a season of uncertainties, yesterday's extraordinary concurring opinion was unambiguous: Enough with the scrutiny of the chads, enough with the recounts upon recounts, enough with the checkmates of one court on another court, enough - perhaps - with the 2000 campaign altogether.

Complete coverage, A38-41.

At least until tomorrow.

The ruling abruptly altered the momentum in a battle of votes, emotions, wits, and law briefs that had just as abruptly swung Gore's way only a day earlier. It all but erased the gloom that hung over the camp of Texas Governor George W. Bush, all but avoided the great institutional confrontations that the capital and country had been dreading for next month, all but brought this historic deadlock to a close.

If the high court's 5-4 ruling halting the recounts leads to a similar ruling ending them altogether, Bush's route to the White House would be unencumbered.

But of all the devastating blows to the faint hopes of Gore, this was the strongest, the bluntest, perhaps (given the high hopes of only a day earlier) the cruelest. The dream castle of the vice president's hopes rests on just one pillar: not just a recount, but a recount that, in a state contest that has come down to fewer than 200 votes, leaves him ahead.

Without the recount, there is no prospect of challenging the certified total that left Bush ahead, no prospect of countering the Florida Legislature and its threat to appoint its own set of Bush presidential electors, no prospect of examining the fine print of the Constitution for an escape route from the vice president's woes. With the recount halted, Gore's only maneuver was parried. With the decision coming from the Supreme Court, his avenues of appeal are cut off.

Assumptions have the staying power of crinkled leaves on the late autumn landscape, but the court's order yesterday suggested its impatience with the Florida Supreme Court, its concern that the state jurists exceeded their authority, and its worries about the implications for the legitimacy of the next president.

But the 5-4 ruling, like Friday's 4-3 ruling of the Florida Supreme Court that set the recounts in motion again, reflected the divisions in American life and culture that produced a deadlocked presidential race in the first place.

Indeed, so great are the divisions, so close are the rival competitors, so seared are the emotions, so difficult are the questions that this election overtime has prompted, that it is the dissents to the two courts' rulings, and not only the majority opinions, that echo across the country.

In a strongly worded dissent yesterday, US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, adopting Gore's viewpoint, argued that ''preventing the recount from being completed will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election,'' adding: ''Counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm.''

A day earlier, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, in a dissent adopting Bush's viewpoint, argued just as strongly, ''I have to conclude that there is a real and present likelihood that this constitutional crisis will do substantial damage to our country, our state, and to this court as an institution.''

Two opinions, taking completely contradictory viewpoints, argued with skill, grace, and care - they are both persuasive. And yet both cannot prevail.

That, too, is a mirror of the crisis that prompted the justices' opinions. The two candidates finished the campaign in a statistical tie only to spend the next 32 days exploring the unexplored reaches of election law and public relations tactics. Neither has been especially successful or artful, and the public is growing weary of the contest and, according to some polls, the candidates as well.

The high court could always be moved by tomorrow's arguments and reverse its apparent course. But right now the Bush camp's prospects are brightest - along with those who, regardless of their position on Nov. 7, are hoping that the election that was supposed to end more than a month ago will come to a conclusion on Tuesday, when, in an ordinary year, the formality of selecting presidential electors is performed without fanfare, or television cameras, or heartbreak.