The power of a vote

February 10, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - As the nation teeters uncertainly on the brink of an invasion of Iraq, it may be appropriate to consider the favorite message of our fellow citizens who, in effect, wash their hands of the political process that in the end determines whether we go to war.

Their pitch goes like this: There's really no difference between the political parties, so it doesn't matter which one you vote for or whether you bother to vote at all. Or, what the candidates say and do won't affect my life, so why vote?

These arguments have contributed to generally lower turnouts at the polls in presidential elections since 1960, when about 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in John F. Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard Nixon.

In the 10 elections for president since then, according to Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the voter drop-off has averaged about 25 percent. In two years, 1984 (Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale) and 2000 (George W. Bush vs. Al Gore), there were slight upward blips, and a larger one in 1992 (Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush).

But overall, only about half or less of all eligible voters have bothered to vote since 1960, meaning that for all practical purposes the candidate elected has been chosen by roughly only a quarter of the electorate. And all of those who say "My one vote won't make any difference" have only to recall the Florida fiasco of 2000 to reflect on those words.

It is the argument that there is no difference between the parties, however, that most deserves examination in light of today's political circumstances. In both foreign and domestic policy, there could hardly be a sharper contrast between the positions taken by the Republican administration of President Bush and those of most of the Democratic Party.

The GOP under Mr. Bush and his chief foreign policy advisers is on a track of unilateralism most obviously manifested in the administration's new doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense" and plans for a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Only cooler heads such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have pulled the administration into efforts to work within the framework of the United Nations, but still with the warning of U.S. military action if the United Nations won't go along.

The Democrats, as feeble as their collective voice in Congress has been, have generally contended that the United States should let the U.N. inspections run their course - not indefinitely, but for some reasonable additional time, while seeking some alternative to war.

Many in the party also insist that the war on terrorism should come first, on grounds it is a greater threat than Saddam Hussein. They agree with Mr. Bush that Mr. Hussein is an evil force but insist he does not pose an imminent peril to the United States, even with chemical and biological weapons.

That said, who can seriously doubt that had the Democrats and Mr. Gore been declared the winners in 2000, there would have been no "anticipatory self-defense" doctrine? You may deplore the notion of such an outcome, but it's hard to argue that the 2000 election didn't set the country on the course it is now pursuing.

The same can be said - even more so - of current domestic policy, with huge tax cuts largely benefiting the haves at the cost of social programs for the have-nots and have-littles and a wildly spiraling federal budget deficit. This policy is the reverse of what the last Democratic administration pursued, with Mr. Gore a part of it.

None of this should be taken as an argument for revisiting the result of the 2000 election, which is history. But comparing the foreign and domestic positions of the two parties today should put to rest the lame alibi of nonvoters for shunning the ballot box. If you truant citizens don't like what's going on now at home or abroad, blame yourselves.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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