- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

Abraham Lincoln said that a country could not long survive half-slave, half-free. And he was right; America barely did survive. Today the question is: can a country prosper half-liberal, half-conservative? Is a continental superpower like the United States governable when voters are so finely divided along ideological lines? The Democratic Party seems to have won huge single-issue voting blocs most blacks, labor, Jews, teachers and other academics, gays, greens, so-called progressives while the Republican Party has the great hinterland; the countryside versus the cities.

This country has known serious divisions in the 20th-century. In the 1920s and early 1930s, we saw a country split over Prohibition and the resultant mass participation in defiance of law in which the speakeasy became the symbol of revolt. We saw a country paralyzed by a depression and the beginnings of a "direct action" labor movement, e.g., auto plant sit-downs. We saw a country divided over entry into World War II, a division healed overnight by Pearl Harbor. But these were fluid; not paralyzing 50-50 cleavages.

The present division of America into two huge voting blocs may presently be impossible to heal because the split involves deeply held cultural values and as every politician knows it is difficult if not impossible to find compromises abortion is a good example that are morally acceptable to both sides.

Somehow under President Reagan American voters found a way out: by being conservative in cultural values, liberal in economic goals. Thus we had a strange anomaly at voting time: the union member (a.k.a. the Reagan Democrat) sought economic gains through his union but voted the union-busting Mr. Reagan (remember the PATCO strike and his dismissal of 11,350 air controllers?) a second term because he liked his cultural values, especially his "evil empire" oratorical war with the Soviet Union.

What this election has shown is that no matter who emerges victorious, the popular will in politics, economics and, above all, in culture has today no meaningful or controlling majority nationally. This may well be the first presidential election case since 1948 about which this can be said. Yet President Harry Truman was able to achieve a bipartisan foreign policy because there was a documentably imperialist Soviet Union to ensure that achievement. In a country so divided over the legitimacy of national leadership and in the absence of a Cold War threat, will the United States, the world's so-called "Superpower," be able effectively to exercise global leadership?

That is going to be the important question which will concern the countries that follow U.S. leadership and those that abominate that leadership. Historically, it takes time for an incoming president, depending on his skills, to establish his leadership at home, let alone his leadership in foreign affairs. The new president will have problems in pursuing actions involving risk of war, as in that Middle East powder-keg, especially with a closely divided U.S. Senate. Or in dealing with the Bin Ladens of the world who, as they watch the USS Cole piggybacking its away across the Atlantic, must regard what appears to them a rudderless United States as a gift from Allah and the Prophet.

The most formidable problem for the incoming American foreign policy advisers is future relations with a trouble-making Russia. Its president, Vladimir Putin, is seeking to restore Soviet greatness by challenging the United States wherever and whenever he can, such as blaming the sinking of the Kursk on a NATO (for which read the United States) submarine. The second problem is not the Middle East as such but primarily Saddam Hussein, who will see in the American electoral muddle a target of opportunity. And there is China and Taiwan; Iran and its submarines, missiles and launchers. American security is at stake here but the great constitutional issue is about hand-counting ballots in is it Broward County?

The great danger for America's leadership is that at day's end when we have a president-elect, he and Congress will bog down in the domestic questions he has promised to deal with gun control, smaller class sizes, prescription drugs and a host of other issues. Whatever sense of national purpose and will to national greatness the campaign may have aroused has disappeared in Florida's electoral rubble.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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