Forget Nice Talk:

"I thought it was a very good speech, Dan ... everything about Bush's reaching out ... Let's hope he succeeds. It will be the best thing for the country.''

-- Bob Schieffer, CBS, Dec. 13

It's hard to know which part of the Wednesday night denouement was worse - Al Gore's feeble concession platitudes, George Bush's twitchy speech claiming the White House, or the cheesy media sanctimony. Most nauseating, I think, was the chorus of pundits asserting the need to put aside partisan rancor and "heal" the divided nation.

Spare me. If ever there was a time to question the legitimacy of an incoming administration, it is now. I know, the national script calls for us all to come together as Americans, unite behind our new president, put this terrible ordeal behind us, etc. But what ordeal? It's not like we just suffered an assassination, a spate of riots, or a civil war.

No. What occurred is that a presidential election was stolen, first on the ground in Florida and then for good measure by a partisan Supreme Court whose right-wing majority cared more about its own retirement schedule than about the institution itself.

The presidency stands besmirched, by the manner in which George W. Bush purloined it. The Supreme Court has been tarnished, by a 5-4 majority that carried out a naked power grab, abruptly reversing its own expansive construction of states' rights and its narrow view of equal protection. Is it really up to the victims of this coup to rescue the good reputation of these institutions, in a healing ritual?

George W. Bush talks a good game as a unifier. His goofy demeanor almost makes you believe he is blissfully unaware as his hatchet men do the partisan dirty work. But while Bush talks consensus, Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip, sees a long-deferred moment for the right to achieve its wildest dreams. Trent Lott, the Republican leader in the Senate, plows forward with an agenda to the right of most of his own partisan colleagues.

In the election, Bush's most popular initiatives were those he counterfeited from the Democrats, blurring real differences - patients' rights, prescription drugs, protecting Social Security and Medicare. The most Republican of his proposals, a tax cut tilted to the wealthy, won little support. So Bush, taking office with less legitimacy than any president in more than a century, should meet resistance, particularly if he pursues a narrow Republican agenda. His should be a caretaker administration - unless the hapless Democrats, in best Stockholm-syndrome fashion, serve as his enablers.

Recall what the Republicans did to Bill Clinton in 1993-94. Though the Democrats had much healthier margins in Congress than the Republicans have now and Clinton beat Poppy Bush by 7 percentage points, the GOP considered Clinton a usurper who won only because Ross Perot split the conservative vote. They would do nothing to help him succeed.

The Republicans decided to block nearly everything. The only administration initiative they supported was one that Clinton had inherited from George Bush Sr., NAFTA, which conveniently split Clinton's own party.

And in 1994, the Republicans were richly rewarded. Clinton looked like a failed president and the Republicans took over both houses of Congress. They would likely have won the White House in 1996, too, had not Newt Gingrich overreached and had Bob Dole not been such a weak candidate. Bush in 2000, surely, has far less legitimacy as president than Clinton had in 1992.

One constructive form of bipartisanship - perhaps the only one - would be a reform agenda to make sure an election can never again be stolen. This will require a constitutional amendment, difficult to achieve but not impossible.

The Rehnquist-Scalia court's belated and opportunistic discovery of the Constitution's equal protection clause creates an opening. In Bush v. Gore, the court held that equal protection of the law requires more consistent balloting systems than the ones we have. Indeed it does. The court's 5-4 majority also held, astonishingly, that the Constitution still allows a state Legislature to take the right to choose a president away from the voters, even after the fact. Both findings cry out for an amendment on presidential balloting.

A constitutional amendment should do three things: abolish the Electoral College, mandate direct election by the people, and put a federal commission in charge of devising a single, coherent and tamper-proof national balloting system.

If Bush wants to demonstrate real bipartisan leadership, he should begin by backing a constitutional amendment to assure that no successor can ever repeat this theft.

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