We measure leaders by the way they respond to crisis. Maybe my perspective, from this distant shore, is too removed from the scene in the United States to be trusted. But as I watch the way George W. Bush and Al Gore have responded to this test with an increasingly sinking feeling.

I voted for Gore. I expect Bush to be the next president, because I think when the absentee ballots in Florida are counted we’ll discover that he won a flawed — but not fraudulent — election.

Gore is absolutely right to wait for the absentee ballots to arrive and be counted before letting Florida go. But he will destroy his career, and tear the political fabric of our nation, if he or his surrogates pursue legal challenges to the ballot in Palm Beach County. The ballot was badly designed. It was a mistake, but it was blessed by Democratic officials before the election. We should not overturn elections because of mistakes that were not deliberately designed to sway votes.

Bush, for his part, is behaving outrageously. Not content to wait for all the ballots, he is trying to achieve squatter’s rights on the election. He believes he can claim victory prematurely and make it so, just as he thinks he can claim falsely to be a “compassionate conservative” and make that so.

Unless Bush and Gore summon the kind of courage — the kind of leadership qualities — that America needs right now, they will be leading us into a constitutional crisis of the worst kind. Today, they are in a poisonous race toward the gutter.

Based on their behavior so far, Bush and Gore are guaranteeing something neither should want. Barring an improvement in leadership, whoever takes office next January will be viewed, quite properly, as an barely legitimate president.

That isn’t something any of us should want.

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