House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle joined Jesse Jackson yesterday in refusing to say that George W. Bush's election was legitimate.
In what critics saw as an extraordinary display of partisan rancor beyond anything in recent memory, the Democrats also declined to say that that his presidency, when it commences on Jan. 20, will be legitimate.
Republicans said the three leading Democrats thus appeared to put the lie to Democratic leaders' claims that they will strive for comity and bipartisan cooperation with Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Tim Russert, having just interviewed Mr. Jackson, turned to Mr. Gephardt and noted that Mr. "Jackson just said the [U.S. Supreme] court was a tool of the Bush campaign and he does not believe that George W. Bush is a legitimate president."
Mr. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, rather than dispute Mr. Jackson on legitimacy, agreed with him that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision was wrong.
When Mr. Russert tried again saying "So, George W. Bush is the legitimate 43rd president of the United States?" Mr. Gephardt would say only that "George W. Bush is the next president of the United States."
Mr. Russert tried again: "But is he legitimate?" Mr. Gephardt replied, "We have to respect the presidency, we have to respect the law, and we have to work with him to try to solve the people's problems."
Exasperated, Mr. Russert finally said to Mr. Gephardt, "But why can't a leading Democrat say he is a legitimate president of the United States?" Mr. Gephardt held his ground, declining to use the word "legitimacy" and saying only: "He is the president of the United States."
"This is a clear sign they are going to follow the scorched-earth strategy of [former Senate Democratic Leader] George Mitchell," said Mark W. Davis, a presidential speechwriter in the administration of President Bush, the president-elect's father. "When the first President Bush extended his hand for bipartisan cooperation, Mitchell bit it. He made it clear that nothing was going to pass unless it was part of the Democratic agenda.
"But I think Daschle and Gephardt better be wary, because the public is giving it a closer look now and will punish obstructionism from either side," Mr. Davis said.
In his interview of Mr. Jackson, Mr. Russert quoted Republican Howard Baker and Democrat Robert Strauss' joint New York Times op-ed column saying that "Americans must not only accept the legitimacy of his election, but give him every opportunity to demonstrate his competence and mastery of the extraordinarily difficult job before him."
Mr. Russert then asked Mr. Jackson if he would "now lock arms with these Democrats and Republicans and accept the legitimacy of George W. Bush."
Mr. Jackson answered by drawing a distinction between legality and legitimacy.
"I accept his legality, because the courts and Congress will say he's legally the president," Mr. Jackson said. "But in a democracy, your legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. He lost the popular vote of the governed.
"We must support our presidency, but America, you know, is greater than a president, it's greater than the White House occupant, and so our national interest compels me to say I'll work with the president," Mr. Jackson said. But he again left the matter of legitimacy up in the air.
"We must resolve this matter of legitimacy, because a democracy must be open, free and fair," Mr. Jackson said. "While I'm impressed with these candidates because these are very qualified people, we must judge a presidency by budget priorities, and must judge it by its public policy, and that policy must be the inclusion of all Americans."
Mr. Davis said: "It's time for Republicans to quit paying homage to Jesse Jackson and to the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], which historically was one of America's great organizations, but has degenerated into a partisan attack dog.
"The Republicans are going to have to go directly to African-Americans, over the heads of the titular leaders like Jackson and Al Sharpton," he added.
On ABC's "This Week," Sam Donaldson asked Mr. Daschle if he thought that "news organizations and others" should go ahead with their own recounts in Florida and if a resulting Gore win "would delegitimize, to some extent, a Bush presidency."
Mr. Daschle said yes, the counts should take place, even if it's after the inauguration. "We already know that Al Gore got more votes in the popular election."
Mr. Davis responded: "It indicates they are clearly going to define this as an illegitimate interregnum between Democratic presidencies. But I think Bush has the skill to foil that strategy by building coalitions with the 30 'Blue Dog' [centrist] Democrats in the House. The Senate is going to be tougher."
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for President-elect Bush, said, "It's been only four days since Vice President Gore conceded and President-elect Bush is committed to bring the nation together to begin working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to pass a positive agenda."
Mr. Sullivan noted that Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet today with the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress, including Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle.
Clifford May, the Republican Party's spokesman, called it "disturbing that three such important Democrats appear to be nursing their grievances and continuing to fight the last war instead of coming out of the campaign mode and beginning to think about how to work with the new administration."
Asked on what basis Mr. Bush would meet with them if they decline to say his election victory or his presidency is legitimate, Mr. Sullivan said: "He is meeting with them as president-elect and looks forward to working with them as president. We're confident that any elements of the past election period can be put behind the nation."
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