- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

At this moment in American history, a constitutional crisis lies in wait. Like a giant cat poised to spring, U.S. enemies wait for us to step down the wrong path. People of prejudice and violence, internally and abroad, are growing giddy at American willingness to be tempted by the same passions that so often have torn governments apart in foreign lands.
For ourselves, we sit in an uneasy silence, all of us, between peaceful transition from one president to the next and a flaring of the "us and them" mentality, wherever that terrible impulse would lead. Passions in all of us lie just below the surface, and there are those who would willingly strike a match to this tinder for personal gain. As a nation, this easy path cannot be our choice.
As the days pass and the positions of lawyers get dug in, it will get harder to find real authority the kind that rings true over the insufferable din of partisan politics to which we can all comfortably go for closure on this unsettling presidential election impasse. Only in these uneasy moments do character and learning get truly tested; only in crossing these rare and unexpected crevices in the otherwise glacial progress of our civilization does a nation reach greatness. If we cross successfully, we are stronger for the effort. If we do not, our detractors close in, affirmed in their long-held prejudice that we are not what we proclaim to be, "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
We are just the same as the fractured factions and feudal warlords that we condemn. We are just as just as selfish and petty, willing to sacrifice nothing of ourselves but what will generate private gain, viewing the world in zero-sum terms, where anyone else's gain is our loss. In short, we are proved to be as vain as the ancient hypocrites, speaking high words while traveling the low road.
At such odd times, it is worth revisiting the voices that echo down through the decades, bouncing largely unheard off the tall walls and hallowed halls once paced by our long-dead Founding Fathers. James Madison is among those who thought most about such future crisis moments. He gave us counsel that is worth hearing again. What would he say now? What would he offer as advice to Al Gore and George W. Bush?
While impossible to know for sure, it is not impossible to make an educated guess. In referring to the purpose of the Senate, much as the Electoral College, Madison explained what we all hate to admit: "Such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions."
What did he mean, and how can his advice help now? Appealing to a more "cool and deliberate sense," Madison noted that "there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn."
Continuing, Madison offers that "in these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind."
In short, Madison would have counseled strongly against the temptation of the passions to sue one another endlessly, seeking recounts upon recounts, revotes after revotes, moving from county to county and state to state, in search of the holy grail of personal political victory. To him, it went without saying that no single man can ever be considered the repository of the American republic's political salvation. Just the reverse. To use the judiciary as a cudgel for pounding out political aims is the death of both the judiciary's independence and the legitimacy of the political process.
So, what are the consequences of ignoring Madison? I would hazard that they are grave, more grave than the zealous impeachment of a sitting president, more grave than letting indiscretions by public officials go unnoticed, more grave than allowing imperfect institutions to produce an imperfect victor, who is then, by circumstance, limited in what he can achieve. They cut to the marrow of the democracy itself.
In the end, Madison reminded us to be patient and to suffer the imperfections of our human republic with grace, even if this means loss of the immediate prize. "What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock one day, and status the next."
In a nutshell, Madison knew well what we are tempted now to forget. The Electoral College is imperfect, but it is the operational definition of our still largely rural and suburban republic. Until we disband it, in favor of some other imperfect system, it is the game board and the rules, the beginning and the end of the discussion. To trip down the sluice of challenging every county's imperfections, indulging our passions and political aims of the day, as if these mattered more than the republic for which they stand, is to forget the great trust passed to us by those who, not knowing us, still believed we would be worthy of it. Whoever the vote favors under normal and unaltered procedures is, by the rules of our republic to date, the president. The other competitor, in the name of honor, should step aside.

Robert Charles, a former chief counsel to the House National Security subcommittee, is a professor of government at Harvard University Extension School.

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