The political version of the Perfect Storm, that's what we are experiencing. Popular vote close and going to Gore, electoral vote even closer and in doubt, litigation (what else is new in America?), counter litigation, demagoguery, concerns about fairness and a body politic that lacks a road map.
No matter who eventually wins, we will see important lasting effects, and not all bad.
Few will ever again be heard muttering, "My vote doesn't count." This election was a defining moment for every school child in America.
And won't America have to tread a tad lighter in the world after all this? Do as we say, in matters of Democracy building, not as we do. Will that become our mantra, now that, to many foreign observers, Gore and Bush seem little more than bickering condominium owners?
Then, what about the obvious urban/rural cleavage? We haven't seen anything like this since the election of 1896 that pitted establishment candidate William McKinley against Democratic/People's Party candidate William Jennings Bryan. The difference is that the parties have reversed constituencies. Then it was the Republicans that won over the urban areas, and the Democrats the rural rest of the country. This time around, the cities went heavily for Gore, small town and rural America for Bush, with the suburbs holding the balance of the votes and splitting the field.
What is even more surprising is the visceral post-election atmosphere when viewed against a backdrop of a relatively tame, if not issueless campaign. Back in 1896, the Bryan forces were proposing serious stuff: free coinage of silver, income tax, price guarantees and all that angry talk about the evils of early corporate America. Gore and Bush, on the other hand, have spent the last three months arguing about whose prescription drug plan is best. And other distinctions with small differences, like whose tax reduction would be fairest and whether we ought to test teachers or reduce class sizes. No Vietnam debate here. No Evil Empires. No Cold War. No Civil Rights. No Contract With America. But tell this to the voters in Florida -- or to the voters everywhere who are watching all this unfold. To hear them, or to listen especially to James Baker, you would think that the Republic is hanging by a thread.
Finally, consider the expected assault on the Electoral College. It has already begun, and if successful, will result in a sea change in American electoral politics. Given the backdrop of this dramatic urban/rural cleavage, this debate will take on even greater importance.
In our post-election reaction to events, the Electoral College's critics seek to reduce the procedure to an 18th century anachronism, but, as any of the framers would tell us, more was at stake. Were they here facing the same issue today, they likely would have resorted to something that would look like the process they left us. First, they insisted on a federal republic, not a democracy: area, region and geography was to matter. Accordingly, representation was to extend beyond people to interests, such as farming and, yes, even slavery. The Senate embodies the idea of a federal republic. The House was to be the popularly elected institution. The Electoral College combines elements of both, and then, in the end, calls for federalism to trump democracy. Votes are allocated according to numbers of representatives and senators. Score one for both federalism and democracy. But traditionally electoral votes have been cast on a winner-take-all system. Score another for federalism. Then, finally, if the vote is tied (and election 2000 could still end up a tie) the issue is settled in the House where every state gets one and only one vote. Score the final trump card for federalism.
What would be the consequence of electing our presidents directly? Smaller states such as Washington would see less of presidential candidates and would lose influence. Gore and Bush made many visits here not because they really needed a few hundred thousand votes toward the 50 million they were after; rather, they came because they wanted our 11 electoral votes against the 270 they needed.
Direct election would add viability to splinter parties and minority candidates. More would stay in campaigns longer. Had Election 2000 been direct, John McCain, Bill Bradley, as well as Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, would have polled significant numbers on Nov. 7. In order to gain a president-elect who claims a majority or near majority, we would need a run-off election, which in 2000 might well have pitted Bill Bradley against John McCain.
In a direct election, candidates need only to mobilize a huge majority of a narrow constituency. Certainly the debate would change if for no other reason than the need to compromise and move toward the middle early on in a given race would lessen in importance.
Here in the State of Washington, the "voice of the people" was heard once again via the initiative process. And once again, that voice made no sense. Our voice voted to spend more money on teachers and K-12 education, while voting at the same time to cut taxes. Every election, we seem to go through this kind of insanity. Remember when the "will of the people" supported Proposition 601, the initiative that limited spending? And then, right on the same ballot, voted up "Three Strikes and You're Out." The voters told Olympia to build prisons, and, at the same time, spending authority was stripped. None of this adds up.
A century ago, reformers urged the initiative as a means of taking power away from state legislatures that were under control of big money interests. But, as we have experienced, government through the initiative process is government that does violence to the entire idea of representation and deliberation. It should be tossed.
The big news locally is that Powers is in, and Talbott is out. Rob Higgins is in, Corker stays where he was. So what happened? Four years ago, John Talbott benefited from a very promising, diverse, even unusual coalition that included neighborhood activists, opponents to the Lincoln Street Bridge project and even some influential business leaders. These past 11 months, with a majority finally on his side, he has finally had the chance to lead. And what have we seen? Frankly, it's hard to tell, inasmuch as we know that the agenda that has driven the council actions over the past year has been framed not by the mayor but by Steve Eugster.
We do know that Talbott's promising coalition of four years ago all but abandoned him for Powers, who was seen as the likely more effective consensus building leader. Major defections from neighborhood groups and from the bridge coalition are no secret.
Combined with Higgins' surprisingly easy win over Corker, arguably the voters repudiated the so-called "new majority." Was it the "new majority's" overly aggressive style, obsession with the garage issue or harsh tone? Or was it the voters' reaction to all that very nasty soft money-funded campaign literature? The mayor, after all, was repeatedly asked to denounce these efforts. He refused.
Was it all of this? Likely it was, but in any case, it seems obvious now that "the new majority" was short lived.