Whatever happens, the system works

Posted: Nov 02, 2006 12:01 AM
Whatever happens, the system works

Just about everything that can be said about the 2006 midterm elections has been said and, in a few days, the voters will get the last word.

Most of the prognosticators, pollsters and armchair soothsayers have predicted the Democrats will take control of the House, and a review of the polls in 20 to 30 Republican toss-up races shows the GOP running behind in enough seats to end its 12-year reign over that chamber.

The Senate teeters on the brink of a turnover, too, but there are enough neck-and-neck races in a half dozen or so battleground states to keep the outcome in doubt.

Either way, we can draw some early conclusions about what this could lead to: gridlock.

Even if the Democrats have a net gain of 15 to 20-odd House seats (they need 15 to win a majority), that will still leave them with a relatively small margin to run the House with any authority -- making many, if not most, of the major votes iffy at best.

Democrats being Democrats, there will no doubt be division in their ranks -- as there is now over who their leaders might be next year -- and it is hard to see them passing major legislation by any convincing margin, or by the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.

The Senate, however the election turns out, will be even more narrowly divided than it is now. A 50-50 split appears quite possible, which would mean it would remain in GOP hands as a result of the tie-breaking vote by Vice President Dick Cheney.

But even if Democrats were to win the six seats they need to recapture the Senate, it would be extremely difficult to get much done in a chamber held together by such a bare majority. President Bush often managed to get some Democrats on his side on some big votes, such as tax cuts, and that isn't likely to change because those swing Democrats will still be there, perhaps cutting deals with the administration.

It goes without saying, of course, that Bush's remaining agenda will at best be on life support if the Democrats take control of Congress or either chamber because they would control the legislative machinery and hold the committee chairmanships. Since chairmen are the legislative gatekeepers, nothing would go to the floor unless it got out of committee.

What all this means is that for anything to get done in this scenario, both sides have to compromise -- something that seems out of the question in today's polarized political atmosphere.

Meantime, we are in the final, frantic days of an election that, even with all of its negative TV ads and personal attacks, isn't really as bad as the "clean politics" people want us to believe.

Both parties are showing remarkable strength in terms of fundraising and political activism, which points to a healthy, robust democratic process that has kept this country vibrant, strong and free for more than 225 years. I have interviewed dozens of candidates and party officials who talk of record-breaking volunteer participation in their campaigns, and early forecasts say that voter turnout at the polls will be unusually high for a midterm election. Elections can be messy things, and politics often is a nasty business, but out of it usually comes some kind of temporary, if unsatisfactory, resolution of our disagreements. Americans say they dislike the negative advertising that comes with modern-day campaigns, but if you read early American political history -- as reported by David McCullough in his best-selling book, "John Adams" -- you will find that not much has fundamentally changed since then.

The fact is that Americans like a good political brawl. Tempers may flare, unfair charges are hurled back and forth, and sometimes dirty tricks are played. But in the end, the whole political ritual comes to a merciful and welcome conclusion when it is all over but the voting.

Cynics and pessimists say the democratic system is broken and needs radical reforming. Some want to impose stricter government limits on how much you can give to the candidate of your choice, or ban contributions altogether.

Others want to further regulate or prohibit when independent political committees can run TV ads that criticize the voting records of incumbents. We had a taste of this in the disastrous McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law (otherwise known as the incumbent-protection act), and the result is that congressional incumbents are harder to defeat than ever. That is something our Founding Fathers would not have wanted.

Yet in spite of all its faults, great and small, I still think our present system remains the best and fairest way to settle our political differences. It could be worse. Consider Iraq.