Voter apathy doesn't bode well for next president

January 12, 2000|By Tom Teepen

VOTER turnout even in presidential elections has been dwindling for 20-plus years, and now polls find that although the presidential primaries are all but upon us, a uniquely large number of potential electors aren't paying the slightest attention.

The prospect thus reappears of another president elected by less than half the electorate or even, if the Reform Party gets up a plausible campaign, of a president chosen by only a plurality of a minority, a la President Clinton.

And, in turn then, we face the possibility of still another presidency installed with at best an iffy mandate and enjoying none of the benefit of the doubt that a hardy majority provides for early trial and error.

There are reasons. The abiding influence and stink of big money seems to moot mere citizen input, and the refusal of the political establishment to bathe sends voters scurrying upwind of it.

Big issues

Crucially, too, there's a sense that politics no longer matters. Prosperity burbles along. The life-and-death Cold War is over and won. The big issues are settled and the differences between the major parties are just flip sides of the same coin.

Wrong. Big-time wrong.

Both leading Republican candidates are committed to ending lawful abortion, both Democratic candidates to sustaining it. With two, perhaps three Supreme Court nominations likely in the next presidential term, and the court at 5-4 on the matter, the issue hangs in the balance.

The Democratic candidates favor greater personal medical choice for HMO patients. GOP candidates would be less expansive. The Democrats would enact several sensible gun controls. The Republican candidates are having none of that.

The cliche internationalism vs. isolationism distinction between the parties is a caricature, but Republicans do lean toward a go-it-alone internationalism and Democrats more to a multilateral internationalism.

The leading presidential candidates of both parties support a continued lowering of trade barriers, but a Democratic Congress, beholden to labor protectionists, would balk more than a Republican one.

Taxing issues

Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants a big, across-the-board tax cut. Democrat Al Gore tenders smaller cuts targeted to middle- and working-class earners. Democrats support, Republicans oppose, federal activism in improving public education. And there are key differences between the leading candidates of each major party. Between Mr. Gore and Bill Bradley, to cite just one matter, over how they would expand medical coverage. Between Mr. Bush and Sen. John McCain over campaign finance reform, with Mr. Bush opposing the broad changes Mr. McCain demands.

If seemingly abstract in principle, all of these matters get down to cases in our daily lives -- in public safety, personal health, retained income, the goods we can buy and sell and what we pay or earn for them.

Politics don't matter only if how you live doesn't matter.

Tom Teepen, who is based in Atlanta, is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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