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System betrayed as we dodge the big issues

Elections are supposed to be about big issues: war and peace, government intervention vs. the magic of the marketplace, missile gaps and peace dividends, the makeup of the Supreme Court. Clashes of conflicting ideologies -- big ideas -- fought within the benign constraints of a peaceful electoral system.

Not this year.

Our politics is getting smaller, and we are the losers for it.

What were the big issues this year? Not Iraq. The late Paul Wellstone was the only senatorial Democrat up for reelection this year who had the guts to vote what he, and many of them, truly believed: that a U.S.-led invasion of that land is counter to U.S. interests and the cause of peace.

Rather than articulate that principled case forcefully, Democrats scurried for the tall grass. In the October debate on a war resolution -- the turning point of this election? -- Democrats such as New York’s Hillary Clinton, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, Massachusetts’ John Kerry, North Carolina’s John Edwards, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, Montana’s Max Baucus, Delaware’s Joe Biden, Missouri’s Jean Carnahan and Connecticut’s Christopher Dodd argued that the best way to avoid war with Iraq was to give the president the authority to unilaterally invade. Huh? To call that position incoherent is to give incoherence a bad name.

The Democrats had their chance to take on this fight and they passed. Disgraceful.

Meanwhile, the other war -- “The War on Terrorism” -- went unquestioned. No candidate for major office, not a single one, dared touch what is quickly becoming the new third rail of American politics. Even basic questions -- Who is the enemy? What are the prospects of victory? Is this as phony as the “war on drugs”? -- were out of bounds. The result: President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld will fight on this front as they see fit. Very dangerous.

Domestically, the major issue was health care, or was it? Only if you include the mind-numbing debate over prescription coverage for Medicare recipients. Don’t get us wrong. We strongly believe that seniors should have access to affordable prescription drugs.

And Republicans cleverly muted the issue with their own watered-down prescription benefit proposal. But in a country where 40 million working Americans and their families don’t even have basic health insurance -- where a single illness can throw a family into poverty -- prescription drugs are a mighty narrow playing field on which to debate such a fundamental human right.

On the economy, moreover, the Democrats were nearly as incoherent as they were on war with Iraq. Most everybody, Democrat or Republican, embraced the president’s $1.35 trillion tax cut of which, yes, approximately 60 percent goes to the top 1 percent of taxpayers! Few Democrats called for its repeal, while most of those up for reelection supported this giveaway in order to neutralize the issue in their campaigns. Spineless.

What accounts for this sorry state of affairs? Roughly 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls Nov. 5; that’s about 20 percent of the eligible electorate. The vast majority of these voters line up automatically with a party, be it Democrat or Republican. So elections are fought, by and large, for the votes of the relatively small number of truly independent voters -- those who could go other way.

This places a premium on targeting the fence sitters with inoffensive blather and pleasing personalities. It’s a mad rush to the mushy middle. What a candidate or party truly believes is less important than muddying the waters and obscuring principled differences.

The result is votes for war in the cause of peace, support for tax cuts while advocating social programs that cannot be afforded as a result of such giveaways to the rich, and crumbs for seniors facing skyrocketing drug costs even as millions fear the impact of a child’s illness.

Rather than tap the potential of the 80 percent of eligible voters who choose not to participate, the politicians, their consultants, and the well-funded special interest groups work to “turn out their vote.” That has become the measure of success in American politics today. Some marginal improvements are likely as a result of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation passed earlier this year, but even there the political technicians will be successful in finding ways around this modest reform.

This truly was, as has now become a cliché, “the Seinfeld election.” It was about nothing. Which is not to say that the consequences are insignificant. George W. Bush will claim a mandate, something he was unable to do after losing the 2000 popular vote. Republican control of the Senate, along with continued control of the House, will result in an increasingly conservative judiciary, ill-considered tax cuts and deficits that rob us of the ability to pay for needed investments in education, housing, foreign aid and health care.

What is most alarming is that this popular president (his approval ratings hover at historic highs) has used his standing to put us on a war footing that looks increasingly permanent. Which, absent a loyal opposition that knows what it believes and is ready to fight for it, appears to be a clever political strategy.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002