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What Elections “Mean”

November 7, 2002

Are the pundits reading too much into Tuesday’s elections? Those pundits have a dubious habit of interpreting election results as if they were virtually unanimous utterances of vox populi, oracular pronouncements of The American People.

To be sure, the Republicans won a very impressive victory for the party in the White House in an off-year. They actually gained seats in both houses of Congress, in defiance of the historical pattern.

But they didn’t win the sort of transforming landslide that changes the character of politics for a generation. They won a lot of fairly close races because they managed to get their voters to the polls, while the Democrats didn’t. That may be all it means. It could easily be reversed in 2004, especially if the momentary GOP hegemony in Washington leads to military disaster or economic collapse.

The last three Democratic presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton — started off with Democratic control of Congress too, but all three quickly misplayed their advantages. Power is a perilous thing to possess.

The Republicans ran a very smart national campaign, but they had lots of help from their opponents. The Democrats had no theme. While the Republicans were unequivocally for “war on terrorism,” the Democrats were ambiguous, appealing neither to pro-war nor to anti-war voters. Like the Republicans in the 1930s, they hoped the electorate would share their partisan hatred of a popular president. It was an attitude, not a strategy, and it backfired.

The Democrats’ fierce but empty partisanship resulted in a series of unedifying spectacles. In New Jersey, they managed, in spite of the law, to switch Senate candidates when the shady incumbent dropped out of the race for no better reason than that he was losing. In Minnesota, the incumbent died in a plane crash days before the election, and a “memorial” service in his honor turned into an ugly anti-Republican hate rally at which the “mourners” actually booed Republicans who had come to pay their respects. And the Clintons, symbols of corruption to everyone but hard-core Democrats, campaigned for Democratic candidates from coast to coast.

[Breaker quote: If anything]If the Democrats were trying to bring angry Republicans to the polls, they succeeded magnificently. Having done their best to lower the tone of the campaign, they are now bitterly blaming each other for their defeat. These recriminations, fully in character, reinforce the impression they have been assiduously creating, that they are a party of malcontents.

But they are wrangling about something serious: Which way should the party go? The die-hards want it to keep moving in its traditional path, which is leftward. The moderates see that incremental socialism no longer sells and that voters have had enough tax increases, thanks anyway. Each faction sees the other as futile. The die-hard leftists charge the moderates with watering down principle in a vain attempt to ape the Republicans; the moderates see the leftists as living in the past. Both sides have a point.

This split explains why the Democrats weren’t able to unite on a campaign message, and probably won’t unite on one in the near future. The Republicans can at least offer an optimistic conservative rhetoric to continue building their electoral support. This soft “right-wing” approach enrages the Democrats (and the media from whom they take their guidance), but it works politically.

Still, neither party as a whole really stands for anything much, and a vote for either is no more than a vague gesture of approval (or discontent, as the case may be). Voting is like trying to say something with a gag in your mouth, and a million votes don’t add up to any particular meaning beyond an inarticulate preference for one of two available but unsatisfactory alternatives.

Even a lopsided outcome shouldn’t be construed as a hearty endorsement of the victor, only a widespread agreement on the (perceived) lesser evil. And as Lyndon Johnson learned, people can change their minds about the lesser evil pretty rapidly.

We do have provisions for those eccentric people who insist on voting for what they really want. These are called “third parties,” a synonym for automatic losers. Their supporters have the consolation of knowing that their votes do mean something fairly definite and that they are saving money on balloons.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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