Election run amok

October 22, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - With less than two weeks to go until the presidential election on Nov. 2, an anything-goes atmosphere has taken hold of both candidates in their frenzied quest for the winning votes in what looks to be another cliffhanger.

In their personal appearances across the country and in their TV ads, each is taking great liberties with the truth, at the same time casting the other - often accurately - as a purveyor of fear.

For President Bush, it's nothing new. He's been telling voters for months, for example, that John Kerry's health care plan calls for a government takeover, with bureaucrats, not patients, choosing their doctors.

Actually, Mr. Kerry is proposing that the health care system should continue to function through private insurance companies, with patients picking their physicians.

With the debates behind him, Mr. Kerry is warning that Mr. Bush will reinstitute the draft, this after the president categorically said in the final debate that he supports the all-volunteer military and will not fire up the draft again.

Mr. Kerry also says Mr. Bush has a plan to privatize the Social Security system and cut benefits, when all the president is proposing is the old Republican scheme of letting contributors to Social Security divert a small portion to private investment accounts.

It goes on like that on both sides in an election that both men and many of their surrogates proclaim is "the most important in my lifetime." Candidates say that every four years, but this time, with the nation mired in a war that has set the country on a radical new policy course, it arguably is that important.

It's unfortunate that the campaigns have taken this turn after debates that, while they also included exaggerations and false claims, illuminated differences between the candidates and the political philosophies and convictions of each.

The political climate has been polluted further by the emergence and growth of unusually partisan "independent" groups that have raised and spent millions of dollars in behalf of one candidate or the other, flooding the airwaves with radio and TV commercials in which truth has also been a major casualty.

The new campaign finance reforms barring the political parties and the candidates from directly accepting unregulated or "soft" money have brought a shift by big givers to new unregulated avenues. That has allowed them to buy and run more millions of dollars in ads for and - mostly - against either one of the candidates. A federal judge has ruled against the legality of these new spending groups, but his finding won't affect this election.

In the new world of Internet blogging as well, partisan arguments, based sometimes on truth but just as often on half-truths or downright lies and rumors, intensify and magnify the negativity and venom spewing at the candidates.

In addition, the specter looms of another election result so close that once again, as in 2000, the reliability of the voting system - or, rather, the voting systems in the separate 50 states - will be tested and disputed.

Passage of the Help America Vote Act has failed to produce unity in the balloting mechanics, and voting procedures from state to state to inspire confidence.

For that reason, armies of Republican and Democratic legal experts have been mobilized as poll-watchers and vote-challengers, especially in the most competitive states. Horror stories, real or conjured up, already are surfacing.

And then there is the Electoral College, often criticized but as unassailable as ever after the fiasco of 2000. Some tinkering is being sought in Colorado, where voters will be asked to abandon the winner-take-all format and award the state's electoral votes proportionately to the popular vote.

If Colorado voters agree, their result may only be an additional element of confusion in the overall picture on election night. The Electoral College, as it was four years ago, is again an accident waiting to happen.

The country can only hope that whatever the electoral vote turns out to be, it will be decisive in favor of one candidate or the other.

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

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