Conventional Wisdom Check

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It's nearly impossible to keep up with the factual developments of this post-election campaign. But it's totally impossible to keep up with the facts, and the predictions, and the opinions, and prescriptions. This is information deluge, not overload. We are drowning.

Yet many want more - more scenarios, more details, more constitutional interpretations, more punditry. Friends and relatives far from Washington and usually dismissive of the city's innate wisdom are seriously asking me a question they never ask seriously: What is the conventional wisdom in Washington?

Rather than answer off the cuff, I intrepidly read a day's worth of newspaper op-ed sections and watched several hours of all-news cable television. I can report that as of November 16, 2000, mid-afternoon, Conventional Wisdom consists of three propositions:

1. Both Al Gore and George Bush have sunk to the occasion and acted like ratssize>color>

You don't have to be conventional or wise to hum this tune. It is ubiquitous. Albert R. Hunt's column in The Wall Street Journal is typical. He says the candidates' activities have been "unattractive" if not "debasing." "Try to imagine either of these men rallying the country or calling for sacrifice," Hunt writes.

From the editorial desk of The New York Times: "One thing has been missing during the weeklong drama over Florida's vote has been presidential-scale leadership from either candidate." The public, says the Times, is "yearning for adult behavior over this mess."

In The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen lampoons Bush for "acting as if the presidency were his by divine right" and Gore for moving his operation directly into the "spin cycle."

There are alternate views to be had here. One could argue, for example, that Gore has displayed mind-boggling tenacity, discipline and drive during this post-partum low and that a lesser man would have been brought to his knees. And hasn't Bush displayed Reaganesque stagecraft by simply pretending he was president and then going off to his ranch?

There was probably nothing these guys could have done to please the pundits in this impossible situation. Many commentators gave Gore grudging credit for a good chess move with his Wednesday evening summit and deal offer. As Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall said on CNN, Gore "pulled off a fairly dignified response and came up with a proposal that has been floating around on editorial pages." It was old news by Thursday's lunch.

2. The ultimate winner will really be the loser because his failed presidency will be plagued by gridlock and partisanshipsize>color>

Al Hunt in The Wall Street Journal: "The behavior of Al Gore and George Bush since the electoral draw has assured that the ultimate victor will ba weakened president-elect."

The Washington Post editorial page: "The conflict damages the chances for a successful presidency for whichever bloodied candidate survives."

The Times counsels the candidates "to start thinking about the toll that small-minded maneuvering will take on the leadership capability of the White House in the next four years, whoever ends up living there."

Doesn't it seem a tad early to write off a presidency that will at least begin in a period of enormous peace and prosperity?

3. The Republic will go on to survive this trauma and maybe even learn important lessonssize>color>

The most pious formulation of this optimistic, big picture view comes from the Post's Richard Cohen: "We are a strong and robust democracy with an abiding belief in fair play-and we may face some rough days ahead. With any luck, our procedures and institutions will see us through…. We the people have work to do."

Such faith and piety has company. "Let him (the next president) bring his friends and neighbors, and the talent and skill to use the presidency as the bully pulpit it can be."

The most honest long-view optimism comes from William Safire, who mischievously knows he has years of good material ahead: "Though Bush and Gore are locked in a fight to the finish, it is only the finish of a campaign. Cheer up, nail-nibblers; it could inspire the beginning of surprisingly creative government." Or not.