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Friday, October 29, 2004

This has got to be the worst presidential election I have ever seen.

I didn't pay much attention to politics prior to 1968. But that year you could hardly avoid it. That was a pretty weird contest, too, with Wallace running on what amounted to a segregationist platform (in 1968!) and Humphrey trying to succeed Johnson who had been crippled by what turned out to be (in hindsight) the absolutely idiotic reaction in the press to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. And through it all, you had Nixon trying to convince people that he had a plan for Vietnam, but he couldn't tell us what it was.

I was hooked.

1972 was almost boring, with the Democrats nominating McGovern seemingly as a favor to Nixon, who absolutely creamed him. That massive victory was followed immediately by nonstop Watergate coverage until Nixon resigned rather than be impeached in the summer of 1974. The (non-Watergate) lesson from 1972 was to check the past of your VP candidate with great care after McGovern dumped Eagleton from the ticket because of a history of depression. Depression? Man, those were the days. I wish that was all that was wrong with our current crop of politicians.

1976 was a contest between Carter, a nuclear engineer turned Southern governor who seemed more like a preacher than a politician, and Ford, the man who became President by mistake, a lifelong pol who seemingly could not walk and chew gum at the same time. But at least there were no scandals.

Carter turned me into a conservative, so I was glad that Reagan won the next two elections, 1980 and 84, first against Carter and then Mondale. The 1980 contest was over as soon as Reagan asked people if they were better off in 1980 than they had been four years earlier. The 1984 win over sacrificial lamb Walter Mondale was almost as big as Nixon's lopsided victory over McGovern in terms of the popular vote, and bigger in terms of the electoral vote.

Reagan's victory was so complete, that Bush 41 pretty much coasted to victory in 1988 against Mondale in an election mainly remembered for Lloyd Bentsen's devastating takedown of Dan Quayle in the Vice Presidential debate. (I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.) Bush won and Quayle was vice president for four years, but Quayle was unable to accomplish a thing and his future presidential ambitions were in ruins.

1992 was interesting, too, with a three way race in which Ross Perot positioned himself to the right of Bush, leaving Bush squeezed between him and Clinton. Bush's stellar performance in the First Gulf War was not enough. Perot added color ("That giant sucking sound you hear is all the jobs leaving for Mexico") but gave us Clinton (with about 43% of the popular vote to Bush's 37% and Perot's 19%) and, eventually, Monica, which leaves us, after two Clinton terms, with Hillary.

The pre-Monica Clinton could probably not have been beaten by Reagan in his prime in 1996, given the state of the economy and the fact that the world at least appeared to be largely peaceful, especially with Perot threatening to run again on the right. And so, Bob Dole, one of the last of the generation of WWII politicians was served up by the Republicans for ritual slaughter.

The 2000 election made history in many ways. It was one of only a few elections (three?) in which the winner of the electoral college and the winner of the popular vote were different. It was only the second time that a presidential candidate failed to carry his home state (the McGovern rout was the first). It was the first time that a candidate withdrew his concession. It was the first time that a concession speech (the real one, thank God) was made on national TV at 8:55 pm. It was before a Monday Night Football game, as I recall.

But most importantly, it was the first Presidential election ever to be the subject of a formal post election contest.

During the Florida contest, we all learned way too much about the nitty gritty of actually counting votes. Who knew that chads could be pregnant? No matter which candidate you were rooting for, the winner of the Florida contest was always going to be damaged goods. Personally, I think the Florida Supreme Court tried to give it to Gore and the US Supreme Court stopped them (as opposed to stopping Gore or helping Bush). Gore partisans still think that the Florida Court was only doing the right thing and that the US Supremes gave it to Bush.

All of that, and Bush's subsequent problems related to the contest, made it clear to me that Nixon was right in 1960 not to contest Illinois and try to swing the election away from Kennedy. The cost of the Florida contest cannot be measured by the amount of money or time it took. It must be measured in terms of the impact it had on the ability of the ultimate victor to govern.

And we paid and are continuing to pay a steep price. National elections should not lightly be contested, and certainly not after you have conceded defeat.

That said, Gore's eventual concession speech was graceful, gracious and even noble. Gore's declaration after 9/11 that Bush was his commander in chief helped alot too. It's too bad the great concession speech couldn't undo all the harm he had caused. And it's too bad that no one seems to have picked up on the fact that 8:55 is a terrific time to schedule a 5 minute televised speech.

But the 2004 election is in a class by itself. Part of the problem is a result of Bush's damaged legitimacy in the wake of the Florida contest (a recent bumper sticker: Re-defeat Bush) Additionally, after campaign finance "reform" supposedly designed to take the money out of politics, we have suffered through the most expensive election in history. With the political parties and candidate's own campaigns no longer in control of a large chunk of the money being spent, we have had the most vitriolic campaign in my lifetime.

For comparison, pundits have had to go back to pre-war elections. Pre-Civil War elections. The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, has been called a liar by his mainstream opponent. In addition, Kerry's allies have called him a nazi, a moron, a monkey and a deserter. And while Bush is personally staying above the fray as much as possible, the name calling and denigration is not all going one way, by any means.

While seemingly united on the necessity of the war, the electorate appears bitterly divided on how to fight it. Actual discussion between the opposing sides has become difficult, if not impossible, and some people are beginning to become violent. One Kerry supporter is on tape telling Liz Edwards at a campaign rally that riots might occur if Kerry doesn't win Pennsylvania. Her response? "Not if we win." How about we just hold the damn election, okay? No one should change their vote because of threats of random violence by thugs.

A former Gore adviser writes:

[If this election is contested in court] there could be real anger--the kind of anger associated with elections in unstable developing countries, the kind that spills out into the street and terrifies people who have always believed in our
stability. There are ugly racial overtones to the Republican plans to prevent "fraud" among all those new voters--most of whom will prove to be African-American. . . .
What Elaine Kamarck doesn't say is that there are ugly racial overtones to the Democratic claims that minorities are being disenfranchised when they fail to fill out a ballot correctly or are forced to vote only in their actual precinct. Reasonable precautions against voter fraud by anyone, white, black, brown or purple, are just as important as counting the votes as accurately as you can. And I think that means asking me and every other voter for identification, both when I register and when I vote. I think it means assigning me a place to vote and requiring me to go there to vote or to vote absentee according to set rules.

But leave aside why the election might be contested, who started the contest and who wins it. Kamarck is right about a number of things. If this election is contested in court, I will be angry. If this election is contested in court, I will also be afraid that the country will become unstable. Bush might have won the last contest, but we all lost something. In the next contest, there may well be no winner. Even the nominal winner of the next contested presidential election could come to realize that his victory was entirely pyrrhic.

Here's hoping that there will be no next contest. Ever.

This, then, is my personal pledge to anyone who will listen:

The party whose candidate contests this election, regardless of the outcome of that contest, will not get my vote for anything (Governor, Representative, Senate, President, dogcatcher) for at least 8 years.

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