With about a week to go before the Nov. 2 presidential election, the
one thought that seems to unite many Republicans and Democrats is relief at the
prospect that this nasty contest will soon be over.
The 2004 election will surely go down in history as one of the most bitterly
fought in our country's history.
I'm enough of a student of history to know that other elections have been
dirty. For example, the matchup in 1800 between Federalist John Adams, and his
once and future friend Republican Thomas Jefferson was pretty awful; it
featured false accusations that Adams was a monarchist, and smears that Jefferson
had fathered children by one of his slaves. (Two centuries later, we've
discovered that accusation was probably true.)
But of all the presidential races of my adult life, this one appears to be
the most divisive, with the most apocalyptic rhetoric from both major parties.
Why has this happened?
On the one hand, most Democrats think the last election was stolen from them,
and that the winner has launched an illegitimate war in the depths of the
Middle East. On the other, many Republicans have come to view the all-out
demonization of the president by the anti-war left as libelous, if not disloyal,
during wartime as America struggles against Islamist foes.
These issues have poisoned the debate in a way that has reduced many
otherwise sane and sober citizens to ranting nincompoops prepared to wildly accuse
their opponents of everything from treason to grand larceny.
Democrats talk of President Bush as an idiot or a war-mongering tool of
corporate interests who is about to turn America into a right-wing religious
Republicans speak of Sen. John Kerry as a leftist appeaser who would sell out
U.S. security to a corrupt United Nations.
Those campaigning in the Jewish community have taken the debate over support
for Israel and church-state separation to similar extremes.
Some Democrats claim Bush will sell out Israel in his second term, and that
Jewish rights will vanish in a Philip Roth-like right-wing religious
dictatorship. At the same time, some Republicans claim Kerry will sell out Israel in his
first term in order to curry favor with the anti-Semitic French.
It's gotten so crazy that in reading the volumes of orchestrated e-mail from
radical supporters of both sides, you can often forget that there are serious
choices to be made on Nov. 2.
For example, on Israel, Kerry's election will probably mean Washington will
revert to the policies carried out in the Clinton administration to try and
push through a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, while Bush
will probably maintain the hands-off approach that has given Israel a green
light to pursue its own vision of disengagement.
Bush and Kerry also have different ideas about whether or not faith-based
charities would be funded by the government, as well as on other church-state
The republic will survive
But for all of this, it may be worthwhile to take into consideration the fact
that no matter who wins on Nov. 2, the republic as we know it will survive.
Even if Kerry tries to imitate Clinton in the Middle East, the prospect of
seeing Yasser Arafat returning to his familiar stamping grounds in the White
House are virtually nil. A President Kerry may have sour relations with Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but he will be hard-pressed to rehabilitate the
Palestinians. And despite his Europhile tendencies, a looming conflict with Iran
may ultimately leave Kerry as disillusioned with his erstwhile pals in Paris,
as Bush has been.
On Israel, Bush is no more likely to sell out Israel in his second term than
he was in his first, which was won without much Jewish support. His
convictions on this issue seem firm. And despite the alarmist talk coming from
Democrats, four years of Republican control of the White House and Congress have not
led to the repeal of the Bill of Rights or even led to progress for Bush's
faith-based charity initiative.
The point is, the genius of the American constitution is the inertia it
creates. The obstacles our system of checks and balances places in the way of
radical change are frustrating at times, but in tandem with the basic moderation of
the American electorate, they also serve as roadblocks to extremism.
Which brings me back to Adams and Jefferson. The 1800 election bore little
resemblance to anything remotely like a modern American election. Few direct
votes for president were cast anywhere and after all, African-Americans and women
couldn't vote, and in most states, neither could men who didn't own
property. But it deserves to be remembered for reasons that have nothing to do with
Sally Hemmings or Adams' predilection for suppressing dissent.
The test of democracy
Why? Because, the spirit of '76 notwithstanding, 1800 was the real American
revolution. That's because it was the first time in American history that a
peaceful handover of political power was accomplished.
When Jefferson won, the incumbent Federalists left Washington. They did
appoint as many judges as they could in their waning days of power. But when his
term ended, John and Abigail Adams packed up their duds and their accumulated
grievances, and went home to Massachusetts.
Those who have followed the course of democracy elsewhere in the world know
this is no small thing. Though they have been independent almost as long as
their counterparts in North America, most of the republics of Latin and South
America are still finding it difficult to maintain democracy. And throughout
Africa and Asia in the postcolonialist period, the rule has generally been one
man, one vote, one time.
So, when the results are hopefully finalized in the wee hours of Nov. 3, it's
important that we honor the outcome, even if we're sore about it. Attempts to
delegitimize the results in advance through wild and premature charges of
fraud do nothing to preserve our freedom. Nor do we advance the cause of
democracy when partisans feel free to say anything and everything about their foes in
the last weeks of campaigning just because they can.
No election victory is worth compromising the integrity of the American
system. That is the lesson of John Adams, who, disgruntled though he was, simply
handed over the reins of power and gracefully accepted his foe's triumph.
That is a lesson this year's loser should emulate, whether his name is Bush
or Kerry. It is even more important that their supporters prepare to do the