Thoughts on politics and an election

Posted: Nov 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Fewer and fewer Americans expect the Democrats or the Republicans, either one, to Save the Republic. A New York Times/CBS Poll released on the Sunday before the election shows voters divided equally as to the parties' merits or lack of same. Democrats are seen as likelier to "make the right decisions about Social Security," the Republicans as likelier to "make sure U.S. military defenses are strong." Neither agglomeration is seen as hugely compelling when it comes to vision or presentation. Forty percent in the poll professed less enthusiasm about voting than in previous contests. Any surprise here? These bleak assessments of U.S. politics have been a feature of the autumn landscape since the Watergate era, more than a quarter of a century ago. As government grows bigger, expectations concerning its performance grow smaller. When all is said and done, politicians of every stripe seemingly reduce to ... politicians. The Wellstone debacle provides material for 10 Ph.D. dissertations on the subject and likely a few seminars. The late Democratic senator from Minnesota was a believer, never mind that his beliefs had about them the stale odor of tie-dyed jeans, retrieved from the closet for some "Remember the '60s" bash. Well, then Sen. Wellstone dies, catastrophically, and many in both parties ache -- such was his nearly unique force as a "conviction politician" (Margaret Thatcher's self-description) -- to pay him tribute. The senator's fellow Democrats oblige by turning his memorial tribute into a full-throated hooray-for-the Democrats, down-with-the-Republicans rally, prompting the innocent, of whom there may still be a few among us, to remark: See, it's not about us, it's about them and their obsession with winning elections and staying on top, whatever it takes. Another current pastime is deploring "negative advertising." We all deplore it. But negative advertising has been with us for a long time, one reason being that it helps by undermining opponents. "Dirt is dirtier than clean is clean," as one of John O'Hara's characters observes. What can be done -- anything? Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain consummated his longtime desire to pass a bill regulating thitherto-unregulated campaign contributions and thereby (he hoped) undercutting the power of money in elections. Well, here comes The New York Times, days before the election, to report that state parties, being constitutionally outside Congress' regulatory purview, are stepping up to do what the national parties can't do anymore. Rivers of money will continue to flow to candidates, just through different channels. Why? The underlying problem is power -- who has it, who wants it. Power, in Washington or Hollywood, or on Wall Street, means on-topness: me over you. That's some temptation. Who realistically can expect the wielders of that power -- politicians in this case -- to lay it down in a grand act of renunciation? Let's be grateful. We still outclass Talibanic Afghanistan, likewise Iraq and China and Saudi Arabia, whose rulers go out of their way never to consult popular opinion. At their worst -- and that worst can be pretty bad -- democratic politicians assiduously court the voters' favor, a thing unheard of in Riyadh and Beijing. The imperfection of the process should remind us of the imperfection of the remedies the process is supposed to supply. "These are the guys we expect to save our bacon and make the world safe for democracy?" The Law of Diminishing Expectations may rescue us in the end, assuming we grasp it securely. I can't be entirely sure, having just thought up said law. It says, roughly: Don't expect too much of men and women who make their living by constantly bragging on themselves, running down their opponents, and working the phones asking for money. Some of these folk are exemplary citizens; many are windbags and braggarts. A few are scoundrels. Politics in democratic societies, after all, is life. It reflects the people. We the people could do worse at election time than look in the mirror, saying, reflectively, hmmmm ...