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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev, 5762

Chris Matthews

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The failure of hardball politics -- THE real loser of the 2000 presidential election was hardball politics.

Last week, we discovered the irony in this game-playing. A ballot-by-ballot analysis conducted by a consortium of newspapers shows that Bush would have won the election clean if he'd let the partial recount go ahead.

Gore made an equally fatal mistake. He sought a recount of only four counties -- Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia -- where he expected to pick up votes. Had Gore offered to recount the entire state, the analysis released last week shows him winning not just Florida, but the presidency.

So all this recounting was not in vain after all. While it doesn't change the results of the 2000 election, it teaches a valuable lesson about politics. Sometimes playing it cute is the most costly strategy of all. Sometimes playing it straight is not only the right thing to do, but, in fact, the winning strategy.

Both candidates paid for choosing cute over straight.

Had Bush not gotten the Supreme Court to stop the limited recounts ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, he might have won the election by anywhere from 225 to 495 votes. Even the most die-hard Democrats would have been forced to concede him his victory.

But had Gore been grand enough to make an unconditional offer of a complete county-by-county recount in Florida, he would have won by 60 to 171 votes, according to the newspaper analysis. He, not Bush, would be president of the United States today. Those "Re-elect Gore in 2004" bumper stickers, made to order for still-embittered Democratic voters, would be for real.

All this late-arriving wisdom actually serves to bolster the intense bipartisan support for President Bush.

Only 12 percent of the country believes that Gore would be doing a better job.

In fairness to the former vice president, no one on the planet, not even the man himself, knows the answer to that question for sure.

What we do know is that the American presidency brings with it several jobs: head-of-state, chief executive, head of a political party, commander-in-chief.

It's that last job that matters most now in the hearts of the American people. It's healthy to know that George Bush would have been our war leader today with or without the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That fact, not clear until now, could play a major role in the 2004 election. Today, Bush is riding 90-percent job approval numbers. Three Novembers from now, that number could well be closer to 50 percent, and the country may be facing another closely fought campaign.

Which brings up the third irony: Bush's supporters never wanted the newspapers to go back and analyze the numbers. They feared a media bias against the Republican president. What they got instead was a verification of the 2000 Electoral College results. What Bush got personally was a bragging right he never thought he would get.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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