Are democratic elections in peril?

George Will

10/4/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--About (BEG ITAL)two hours after Sen. Robert Torricelli's weepy press conference, in which he--a liberal, hence nimble at victim-mongering--proclaimed himself a victim of America's defect (``When did we become such an unforgiving people?''), the presses of the Democratic Party's newsletter, The New York Times, were printing an editorial exercise in situational ethics. The Times--sometimes a stickler for legality, sometimes not--said ``legal wrangling over ballot access cannot be allowed to obscure the central issue, which is one of democracy.'' Here we go again. (BEG ITAL)Now people may fully understand the recklessness of what Al Gore almost accomplished in Florida. Unhappy about the result the political process was producing, he tried, with the assistance of a compliant state Supreme Court, to rewrite the rules of the process. Election laws are supposed to be exacting so they can prevent just such last-minute frenzies by people frightened of losing. Yet today Democrats are asserting this principle: Anytime--even just 36 days before an election--a party has discouraging polls about a candidate, that party can replace him. Even if, as in New Jersey, voting has already begun--many military and other absentee ballots have already been mailed. The Times says ``democracy'' depends on this principle. If so, democratic theory contains this Clunker Codicil: If a party saddles itself with a clunker of a candidate, then the impending election would somehow not be what the Times calls a ``genuine,'' meaning ``competitive, '' election. Question: Of this year's 469 House and Senate races, how many are ``competitive'' by the Times' standards (if it has any, other than that Democrats should prosper)? Probably not 50. The day after Torricelli withdrew, New Jersey's Democratic Party awarded Torricelli's place to his former colleague, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, 78. New Jersey law, which the Times and other Democrats consider an impediment to ``democracy'' and which one of the Democrats' lawyers called a ``technicality,'' says that any ballot vacancy, ``howsoever caused,'' not later than 51 days prior to an election shall be filled in a prescribed manner. Torricelli withdrew 36 days before the election. Democrats said the silence of the law--it cannot anticipate all the ploys that knaves can imagine--about the (BEG ITAL)deliberate creation of a ballot vacancy (BEG ITAL)for transparent political reasons leaves them free to do anything that is not explicitly proscribed. The third branch of New Jersey's Legislature, aka. the state's famously ``progressive'' Supreme Court, agreed. Doing so, it breezily said that doing the Democrats' bidding served ``the two party system'' and ``the general intent'' of the law written quite differently by the other two branches of New Jersey's Legislature, and now rewritten by the third. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will have something to say about the compatibility of the New Jersey court's ruling with the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process and stipulation that state legislatures (the ones (BEG ITAL)not wearing robes) shall determine the time, place and manner of elections. This is a recipe for anarchy every election year, and not just in New Jersey. Torricelli is not dead (being terminally ill, politically, does not count). He is not incapacitated (being ethically challenged does not count). He is not in jail (with his contributor David Chang, one of seven people who pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Torricelli). Were he any of those three there might be grounds for waiving the 51-day limit. But poll results that sadden Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle are not grounds. Torricelli's career of political sociopathy, of rule-bending and rule-breaking, concludes, fittingly, with a crescendo of cynical rule-inventing. One week before Torricelli's self-immolation, Daschle told a Trenton audience that ``the future of this country'' depended on Torricelli's re-election. But when Daschle and other Democratic advocates of voter amorality failed to persuade New Jersey to be unconcerned about Torricelli's character and record, Torricelli withdrew, thereby enabling Democrats to say New Jersey was thereby denied a choice. It was a Torricellian twist on an old joke: A child kills his parents and demands mercy because he is an orphan. A political party's enthusiastic embrace of the likes of Torricelli should be like getting drunk--a wretched excess that carries its own punishment. The party should stay locked in the embrace it voluntarily entered into with a reprobate, until voters are given a chance to render their judgment on the party's judgment. For 36 days in Florida in 2000, Democrats displayed ferocious contempt for any rules under which they do not win. Next month, voters everywhere should consider the New Jersey spectacle when weighing how much power Democrats deserve.