"Public happiness," Hannah Arendt once wrote, "is not isolating, but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one's public faith redeemed and returned." Never have I known such intense public happiness. If the Lewinsky affair was good dirty fun, this is good clean fun. Walk down the street and you hear "Gore" or "Bush" or "Florida" on every gleeful lip.

Now that the supposedly democratic "mandate" is being reduced to farce, Americans are having their instinctive lack of faith in the political process rousingly vindicated. Everyone knows that what's true of Palm Beach county -- incompetent technology, human frailty, willful obstruction of inconvenient voters -- is true across much of the United States.

Take the case of felons who have served time, probation and parole. Five hundred and twenty-five thousand Floridians were denied their vote on Nov. 7 because of felony convictions in their past, maybe passing a bad check 30 years ago. In the last 25 years, the number of ex-felons disenfranchised has increased from 1 percent to almost 5 percent of Florida's voting-age population. At least 139,000 black ex-felons -- 9 percent of Florida's blacks of voting-age -- were denied a vote.

In the Florida courtroom of federal Judge Middlebrook, a counsel for George W. Bush acknowledged a built-in error rate for voting machines of anywhere from 2 to 5 percent. Since the opinion polls regularly concede an error margin in their estimates of anywhere from 4 to 6 percent, this means that the more reputable polls may well be more reliable registers of the people's choice than the machines that supposedly record the people's conclusive judgment.

Gazing at the assorted spokespersons for Gore and Bush, we can exult in the tradition of vote fraud that ennobles America's political history. Here was William Daley, chairman of Al Gore's campaign, son of Mayor Richard Daley who helped fix the Cook county vote in Illinois in 1960, an important ingredient in the drive to put Jack Kennedy over the top, even as Richard Nixon's men in southern Illinois toiled manfully to fix the vote the other way. Here, too, was James Baker, scion of the Texas oil industry that benefited so hugely from Lyndon Johnson's first stolen senatorial election.

I asked Ralph Nader two days after the election if he was disappointed at the Greens' 3 percent national showing. "I always knew the projected Green vote would drop when people got into the voting booth," Nader answered. "You should see some of the scare tactics of the Gore crowd. Telling people that if they voted for me they'd been sponsoring back street abortions. In part, we have been the victim of inflated expectations -- with people predicting that we were heading for 8 percent. On election day, I said I reckoned we'd get about 3.5 percent."

I'm glad Nader and the Green Party Greens didn't make a 5 percent showing. (In the end, Nader got about 3 percent of the vote.) Receipt of that "party-building" money would have inevitably destroyed the Green party from the inside. The Greens really are anarcho-syndicalists in the best sense. The party is a collective of disparate political groupings, enviros, peace activists and dissident labor forces. Trying to mold them together into a big political party with a grand strategic platform would be self-defeating. Another four years of Democratic migration to the right will only invigorate these organizations without risking the pitfalls of trying to become a "major party."

I asked Nader whether he would prefer Bush or Gore in the White House, and he hemmed and hawed a bit. One can make the arguments both ways, and we chewed over the alternatives in our chat. On the one hand, a Bush victory deriving in part from Nader taking votes away from Gore would remind Democrats that they had better listen more carefully to Green demands in the years to come. On the other hand, Democrats in opposition can call for unity and a setting-aside-of-differences in recapturing power. If Gore wins the White House, it will be far easier to Greens to organize amid ongoing Democratic misbehavior and betrayal. You can make the case both ways.

Are the stakes really that high? Of course they're not. That's why everyone is having such a wonderful time. It makes scant difference whether Bush or Gore is "elected," or appointed by America's minuscule reserve of "wise men." We have gridlock, and the prospect of glorious gridlock for the next four years. If Bush makes it, we'll probably get Al in four years after Bush is retired, just as his dad was, by a recession. If Gore makes it, we'll get W in 2004 for the same reasons, then in 2008, it will be Hillary's turn.

And our greatest president? One who never even received a popular mandate either as veep or president: Gerald Ford. Here's fresh evidence of his sterling merits, just in from a new report by the House Budget Committee's Democratic minority staff tabulating growth of non-defense appropriations by presidency. Average annual percent change in real outlays, adjusted for timing shifts. Ford (1973-1977) -- 7.2 percent; Nixon (1969-1973) -- 4.3 percent; Bush (1989-1993) -- 3.8 percent; Johnson (1965-1969) -- 2.7 percent; Carter (1977-1981) -- 2.2 percent; Clinton (1993-2001) -- 2.0 percent; Reagan (1981-1989) -- -1.3 percent. A true heir to FDR in public disbursements and the only White House denizen indisputably elevated to that position without vote fraud.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair are coauthors of Al Gore: A User's Manual, published by Verso. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.