Here are some suggestions from America about how Al Gore and George Bush should resolve who takes charge of a nuclear arsenal that can destroy the planet several times over.
The Veep and the Governor pull the wishbone from the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. Whoever grasps the bigger twig gets to be President. The snag with this is that the loser would instantly unleash a slew of law suits accusing the other contestant of twisting the wishbone.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court flips a commemorative 'Indecision 2000' coin. Make it a dime, which will be the rough value of the presidency by the time this is decided. The snafu is that the coin is fated to land on its edge.
My favourite solution is for Al Gore and George Bush to meet on the White House lawn to fight a duel, the most popular outcome of which would be that both men prove to be fatally accurate shots. The trouble is that everything that has happened so far warns you that both would miss.
It's Groundhog Day in the United States: today, every day of the last 18, and many more days into the future, as America finds itself imprisoned in an endless circle populated by lawyers and pundits leaping from whichever legal or ethical contention might serve to secure the outcome they want. Some nightfalls, it's a smugger Gore who has inched closer to the Oval Office; other midnights, it's a perkier Bush creeping forward. Though the fine details of the arguments change, the cycle doesn't. Each morning, the United States wakes up to find that it still doesn't know the identity of its next head of state.
Tomorrow, the famous pregnant chads may have given birth to just enough little votes for Gore to move Florida into his column. But if the Democrat is still losing, he won't be conceding. His legal gunslingers will ride back to court. If George Bush is the loser in the alligator state, he isn't talking about taking defeat on a dignified chin. The Republicans speak apocalyptically of using their majorities in the Florida legislature to overturn a result for Gore which would mean Jeb Bush signing his older brother into the Oval Office.
You want lurid scenarios? They're piling them high, they're selling them cheap, all the way up to the Supremes. One Democrat tells me that the only reason there won't be a civil war with bullets is because the Republicans have got all the guns.
The impasse will be overcome eventually because it must be overcome. One of the protagonists, let us call him President Bore, will be sworn in on 20 January. But this man, let us call him President Gush, will have won the emptiest of victories. A halo of illegitimacy will now attend whoever takes the office. After the dead heat, the deadlock; after the deadlock, the dead presidency.
Most of the United States won't much care. Whether it's Bush or Gore, only a quarter of Americans will have voted for their President. They moan like hell about gridlock in Washington, but you fancy Americans must secretly like semi-paralysing their government, otherwise they wouldn't keep making it happen. They are going to get a Senate split down the middle, and a President in name, but not a great deal more.
That's because the partisans do care. They care with a passion that has moved beyond the frontiers of reason and logic into the swamps of pure venom. The language being used by the antagonists is more inflammatory than during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Republicans already talk of boycotting the inauguration of President Gore. The air is acrid with charge and counter-cry of cheat and hypocrite, chicanery and criminality. A presidency born out of so much contention will be a weakling thing, deprived of a mandate for reform and the authority to take dynamic and creative action. Whenever the Commander in Chief attempts to do anything big, bold or controversial, the losing side will undermine him by chanting 'Hail to the Thief'. Whoever gets to sip from this chalice is going to find that it is foaming with poison.
This hands a couple of advantages to Bush. Gore will be a weak President because vengeful Republicans in Congress will be determined to finish him off before he has even started. Dubya will be a weak President because he's an intellectual void who only got interested in politics late in life when old man Bush told him that the White House kitchen makes a nice jelly sandwich and behind the West Wing there 's a really neat putting green. Bush the Second won't mind being gridlocked; it's the bespoke excuse to take longer naps. If the President is going to be lame, then it helps to be the guy who will take that lying down, snoozing.
Dubya's other edge is that the Republicans hate Al Gore much more than the Democrats love the Vice-President. While the Right is ferociously hungry to reoccupy the White House, there's a jaded appetite for the throne among Democrats. Many of them are saying, more or less openly, that a period in opposition will be cleansing after the morally stained ambiguities of the Clinton chapter. They surmise that a Dubya presidency will actually be good for Democrats, so long as they are not Democrats called Gore. It would virtually guarantee that they will make large gains in the Congressional elections in two years time, and make it more likely that they will capture the White House in 2004.
You will note the absence from this Machiavellian calculation of a care for what Republicans might in the meantime try to do to the people for whom the Democrats claim to care. It is this sort of politics-by-numbers that has brought America to its present nadir. No one ever thought that the insufferable Gore or the ineffable Bush possessed faces that were candidates for being carved on Mount Rushmore. No one ever mistook either man for a Washington, a Lincoln or an FDR. Neither has ever hinted at being more than an average occupant of the Oval Office. Stripped of the authority which comes from legitimacy, they are unlikely even to vault that low.
A pygmy President may be what America deserves. It is certainly what Americans have engineered. The United States is in its second Gilded Age. The first era of that name, in the late nineteenth century, was characterised by sustained and complacent prosperity presided over by nonentities who are only remembered now, when they are recalled at all, for their scandals. This was the era when Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote, but was fixed into the White House. Permanently embattled by recriminations and ever after known as 'His Fraudulency', four grisly years in office ended with not one achievement of consequence. The best guess is that President Gore/Bush will be a one-term unwonder.
The good news is that a pygmy President probably can't do the rest of the world too much harm. The bad news is that he will not be equipped to do the rest of the world any good. The chances of America taking its fair share of responsibility for despoiling the planet - and this will be particularly true of President Dubya - will be even closer to zero. For Europeans, a disengaging United States may actually turn out to be the beneficial spur we need to take proper responsibility for our own continent. The European rapid reaction force may come to be seen as a farsighted preparation for the encroaching day when the Yanks fold their tents. In the shorter term, an America which treats the rest of the planet like an absentee landlord is likely to make parts of the world, not least the Middle East, more dangerous.
Abdicating abroad and impotent at home, whichever of the protagonists eventually snatches the presidential seal will have office without power. Air Force One is a fabulous ride, but it won't be taking its next owner to a destination anywhere near greatness. This will be a job fit for someone who is excited by the idea of having the title but not animated by what can be achieved with the office.
And that suggests that the man most likely to be the next President of the United States is George W. Bush, if only because the most apt outcome of a contest for a booby prize is to award it to the prize booby.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000