For just about 24 hours, the people of the United States will be happy and at peace. That will be between 10 P.M. on Monday, November 1, and approximately 10 P.M. on Tuesday, November 2. We’ll be happy because the carping will have stopped, and the guns of litigation will not have begun to fire. These fusillades will begin when the television blinkers register UNDECIDED, referring to voters in Michigan or Florida, or Ohio, or Colorado. The networks will incline to UNDECIDED later than in the past, when computers projected winners based on hygienic extrapolation. There ain’t no extrapolation these days that will make the protesters go away, and television commentary will reflect all the problematics. Bring on one protester with a chad between his thumb and forefinger yelling about equal protection, and you’ll have an UNDECIDED to abort any composure the American people might have hoped for.
The 24-hour solace on November 1-2 will reflect the joy of political stillness. The president will have given his final speech, and Senator Kerry his. Neither will, one hopes fervently, go the road of Senator Dole, who campaigned through the night, from whistle stop to whistle stop. In 1996 Dole’s persistence was in a lost cause. Bill Clinton was going to win that election. This time, no one knows who will win, but the contenders haven’t suggested that they will go on speaking past midnight to catch the attention of late-night celebrants of All Saints’ Day. On the assumption that CBS doesn’t come up with evidence that George Bush cheated in grade school, the hours of political contention will have ended.
What are we left with? The New York Times, so vibrant with partisanship, is nevertheless scrupulous in its effort to isolate and document the bones of contention. One week before the election, the paper published a supplement, “Voter Guide 2004.” The 10-page section attempts to touch down on the political issues raised during the campaign. One especially useful page is introduced as “Where They Stand, What They’ve Done.” There divisions are described on the full range of issues before the voters. Abortion, Death Penalty, Economy, Education, Environment, Foreign Policy, Gay Rights, Gun Control, Health Care, Homeland Security & Defense, and Social Security.
If the reader still has the energy to analyze, he is quickly given the opportunity to do so. Under Death Penalty, the two candidates are given only a single line each: Bush: “Supports the death penalty.” Kerry: “Opposes the death penalty, except for terrorists.”
You feel that little pre-gag clutch in the throat.
Why “except for terrorists”?
After the bombing in Oklahoma City, President Clinton inveighed against the perpetrators. They will be hunted down, they will be tried, and they will be executed, he promised. As much was done to Timothy McVeigh.
Yet the purist experiences once again the philosophical slouchiness of the candidate. If capital punishment is wrong, then it is wrong. Why is the murderer less heinous if he shoots his own mother, than if he shoots someone else’s when engaged in terrorist activity? There are historical examples of definitions defied. The State of Israel disallows execution — but executed the chief Jew-killer Adolf Eichmann. Kerry doesn’t work these problems out. He tends to worry only about such distinctions as reflect popular intensity. People are madder these days at terrorists than at ordinary murderers. So execute the former, and just put away the latter into lifetime jails. You’re against capital punishment, but nothing’s too much for terrorists.
There are shadings to be done on the question of abortion — and education, and gay rights, and homeland security and defense. The lists go on, and caviling is endless, but then so are the demands of democracy, which is best thought of as a means by which public policy makers are elected, not a means by which epistemological progress is made in moral or philosophical thought. Those who are finicky can plausibly conclude that neither one of the contenders has earned complete confidence. Okay. But be ready, then, to proceed to the corollary: that political democracy is organically defective.
We shrink from that. And will have to worry mostly about whether the chaos ahead will be generated by chaddism.
Let us hope somebody wins decisively.