Constitutional democracy proved itself on Tuesday

  • George Will / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, November 8, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — As the 1932 election approached, President Herbert Hoover, about to be swept from office, received a telegram from an angry voter eager to wield the broom: "Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous." Boring unanimity is not America’s problem just now.

Amid the welter of uncertainties remaining as this is written at noon Wednesday, there are three certainties. The ferocious campaign, unprecedentedly competitive across the continent, will produce one president, two tenuously controlled legislative chambers, and a bumper crop of bitterness.

If Al Gore loses Florida by a number of votes substantially smaller than Ralph Nader’s vote total, Democrats will feel deprived of victory by a frivolous faction. As we enter an impassioned debate about electing presidents by electoral votes, ponder this:

Replacing the Electoral College, and the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes by states (not a constitutional requirement; a choice made by all states except Maine and Nebraska), with direct election of presidents by popular votes, or by proportional (to the popular vote) allocation of electoral votes, would be an incentive for minor parties to splinter the electorate, producing muddy mandates rendered in a raspy and uncertain national voice.

If Bush loses Florida, having lost other states by whiskers, Republicans will suspect that victory was snatched from them when he lost momentum due to the election-eve tempest about a 24-year-old driving-under-the-influence infraction. Everyone, regardless of political allegiances, should execrate all partisans, such as the fool in Maine who initiated the tempest, who recklessly play with the process.

In Congress, the remarkable Democratic Party, which believes that a baby kicking in its mother’s stomach should not be considered alive but that a dead Senate candidate should be considered alive, came tantalizingly close to capturing both houses. And this time the familiar axiom — that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades — is not apposite. Closeness deepens disappointment, and some senior Democrats, whose long experience in the majority make the drudgery of minority status especially galling, may now retire.

In the Senate, two Democratic seats are uncertain. If Joe Lieberman becomes vice president, Connecticut’s Republican governor will appoint a Republican replacement. And Missouri’s Jean Carnahan may be a long way from securely occupying the seat for which she did not run — at least she did not if you subscribe to the perhaps quaint notion that candidates running have their names on ballots.

Furthermore, a Republican seat from a state with a Democratic governor hangs by the thin thread of an old man’s health: South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond will be 98 in December and is ailing. Which means that Democrats could control the Senate at any moment.

There is a pretty paradox in Tuesday’s surge in turnout: Many of the people — for example, the editors of The Washington Post and other newspapers — who are most distressed by low turnout are also disturbed by one thing that helped produce the surge. The flood of political money, much of it not raised by or spent through candidates’ campaigns, produced an extraordinary — and on balance wholesome — cacophony, which energized the electorate.

Those who favor higher turnouts and less political discourse — limits on campaign giving and spending indisputably mean less communicating — cannot have it both ways. Those who favor less discourse include many members of the political class, who resent losing control of the national conversation, and hence of their campaigns. Too bad. Politics is not their private property.

The Post, which is constantly amazed by the hydraulics of political money, has yet again discovered that when you impede the flow of funding for political opinions in one stream, funding increases in other streams. The Post, which favors limits on contributions to candidates, notes with alarm that "spending is increasingly channeled not through candidates’ coffers but through supposedly independent organizations." Yes, indeed — through the myriad party committees and issue-advocacy groups (for and against gun control, right to life, and on and on) that helped bestir more than 4 million more voters than participated in 1996.

Let there be no mistaking what happened Tuesday: Our system of constitutional democracy worked well. It is a system of representation, and it has, with splendid precision, represented the strengths of the parties, and hence the division in the public mind. There exists between the parties a parity not known since the last quarter of the 19th century, when five consecutive elections produced plurality presidents.

Tuesday the nation elected its third consecutive president with less than a popular vote majority. Whoever he is, he earned the job.

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