Finally, someone challenges the Dubya standard

By E.J. Dionne Jr., 12/10/2000

WASHINGTON -- YOU KNOW YOU'RE confronting a double standard when the argument you're hearing reminds you of the schoolyard phrase: Heads I win, tails you lose. Let's examine the double standards that have been put in place to block Al Gore from becoming president.

For days now the common wisdom, even among Democrats, held that if Gore had lost his case before the Florida Supreme Court, he would have to concede to George W. Bush and be ''gracious.'' It was not an unreasonable view, especially since the Florida justices tried hard during oral arguments on Thursday to give Gore his due. And on Friday afternoon, the court did more than that, handing Gore by a 4-3 majority the recounts he had long sought.

But that raises a new question: If Gore was supposed to give way had he lost this case, shouldn't a comparable expectation apply to George W. Bush? If these recounts show that Gore won Florida, doesn't it fall to Bush to be ''gracious'' and concede?

No one expects that to happen. Already the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature has moved to name Bush electors who would contest Gore electors chosen by the people.

There was a revealing moment in the courtroom Thursday when Joseph Klock, who otherwise did an excellent job as an attorney for Secretary of State Katherine Harris, underscored that the Legislature would have no compunction about taking the choice of presidential electors away from the people.

For now, he said, ''the Legislature has allowed the people to make that choice.'' Note that word allowed, which makes the Legislature the parent and the voters a bunch of children. If the lawmakers don't like what the people did, they can disallow the people. And Bush, who got slapped by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday in his effort to stop all hand recounts, can be counted on to appeal the Florida Supreme Court decision on recounts.

So Gore was supposed to drop out as soon as he lost, but Bush can keep on fighting.

Heads Bush wins, tails Gore loses.

Or take those cases on illegally processed absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin Counties. The facts are clear: Republican officials doctored applications to make sure that some 2,000 absentee ballots in Seminole County and a smaller number in Martin County got sent out. No one disputes that what the Republicans did was against the law.

Yet any effort to throw out the illegal ballots - which could give the election to Gore - would be condemned for denying citizens who themselves broke no law their legitimate right to vote. That's why the judges in both cases ruled Friday that the ballots should be counted. Fair enough, except that no such solicitude is shown toward voters who lost their ballots because of well-documented problems with Florida's voting equipment.

Think about the argument made here. When Broward County ballot counters were examining legally cast ballots, Republicans charged that counting any dimpled chads for Gore constituted some corrupt, outrageous violation. Yet Republicans who claim to be strict constructionist, throw-the-book-at-em, law-and-order types suddenly go squishy and say the problems with the Seminole and Martin ballots are only ''technicalities.''

Thus, the new Bush slogan is: Illegally obtained ballots, yes. Dimpled chads, no.

Heads Bush wins, tails Gore loses.

At last, the double standard has been challenged. Had the Florida Supreme Court majority not ruled for Gore, Bush would have become president by asking Gore and all who voted for him to accept the unacceptable - for example, to ignore Miami-Dade and Palm Beach ballots that that had already been shown to contain votes for Gore, and to take on faith that the ballots in Miami-Dade County, on which the machines discerned no votes for president, were best left unexamined.

Above all, a president might have been chosen not by an open examination of ballots - exactly what you expect a democracy to do - but by burying votes and ignoring problems.

Now, the Florida court has put a challenge to Bush. Will he continue to seek the presidency by attempting to block recounts? Will he do an end run around results not to his liking and get the Legislature and Congress to intervene? Or will he let recounts go forward and seek the presidency in the way he honorably set out to do so many months ago: by being the candidate who earned the most electoral votes fair and square?

Whether Bush or Gore wins, that is the one standard that should apply.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist.