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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 1999 /21 Elul, 5759

Morton Kondracke

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U.S. future up for grabs in 2000 -- MY FRIENDS Lionel and Gloria Chetwynd had a conversation in Paris that bears on Americans as they approach the millennium, especially the 2000 election.

The conservative Hollywood movie writer and his wife, transplanted Canadians both fluent in French, were walking down a beautiful Paris street in a summer mist. The pavement gleamed, the buildings enchanted.

Gloria said to Lionel, "I have figured out why the Parisians are so mean and nasty even though they live in such a beautiful place: They think they built it, when in fact they just inherited it."

Lionel's observation is that Americans are in danger of having the same said about them. Not that we're habitually arrogant, nasty and callous like the Parisians, but careless and apathetic, willing to let rot seep into our politics and culture.

"We have a great country," he said. "But we think we built it when we actually just inherited it."

That's worth thinking about and -- if we're inclined to be passive -- doing something about as the country heads toward the millennium election.

Experts figure that only about 55 percent of American voters will participate in next year's presidential election, even though a record $2 billion is expected to be spent trying to influence their vote for all federal candidates.

People say they won't vote because politicians only listen to monied special interests, because the parties have rigged the choice of candidates, because the scandal- and horse-race-minded media don't tell us what the issues are, because polls tell us in advance who's going to win, because there's no difference between the candidates anyway.

Fact, however: In 1998, if only 7,000 people had switched their votes in the five closest congressional races, the U.S. House of Representatives now would be Democrat-controlled, not Republican.

Fact: In 2000, not only the presidency and control of the House will be up for grabs, but probably the complexion of the U.S. Supreme Court and domination of American politics for the next decade.

The next president may well make up to three Supreme Court nominations. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative, is 76. Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal, is 80. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing voter, is 70.

There are a whole series of issues, including affirmative action, aid to parochial schools and state-federal relations, where a one-vote switch could make a difference.

Republicans seem likely to keep control of the Senate next year, but the House easily could go Democratic even if -- as polls now indicate -- the presidency goes Republican. And, of course, polls now mean nothing, especially if citizens are paying active attention to politics.

Moreover, governors and state legislatures elected next year will redraw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2000 census, possibly altering the partisan balance in Washington and many states.

Not significant? In 1990, Democrats won 53 percent of the popular vote for Congress, entitling them to 230 seats in the House. In fact, they won 61 percent of the seats, 258, because district lines were gerrymandered in their favor. Reapportionment made a 28-seat difference.

Are the parties just the same? Well, there has been a convergence toward the center, at least at the presidential level, but which party controls will make a big difference on taxes, guns, Social Security, Medicare, education and health care policy.

People say, "special-interest lobbyists have the upper hand. Politicians don't listen to us." It's true, big contributors and lobbyists do have undue influence, but it's wrong to say that individuals have none.

Members of Congress do listen to the people who raise campaign money for them, but they also are deeply attentive to the voters who send them to Washington -- especially if the voters are vocal and organized.

If citizens want to reduce the influence of special interests, they can go to a congressional candidate's town meeting and demand campaign finance reform. And bring some friends. Candidates do listen to what's on peoples' minds.

People say they can't find out what the issues are, that the media are only interested in sex, scandal and polls. There's certainly a disturbing tendency in that direction, but simultaneously there's more issue information around than at any time in U.S. history.

Through the Internet, Americans can now read almost any newspaper or magazine in the country, every major candidate's positions, the reports of think tanks and research centers and any government publication.

It's true, both party establishments are trying to pre-select candidates this year, freezing out all but Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

But the choice is not inevitable if enough people decide they don't want it. You like Sen. John McCain or former Sen. Bill Bradley better? Go to work for them.

Citizenship does take effort. Passivity and complaining is much easier. On the other hand, what's up for grabs is the fate of a great country we inherited. We should be worthy of the inheritance.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
08/19/99: Neither party has upper hand for '99
08/17/99: Ford gets freedom medal one month early
08/12/99: There's time to catch Bush, say Gore aides
08/10/99: Rudy, Hillary try much-needed makeovers
08/09/99: GOP must launch new probe of Chinagate
08/02/99: Pols blow fiscal smoke on budget surplus
08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

©1999, NEA