What Do We Make of the Election?

Nov. 10 2000 9:00 PM

What Do We Make of the Election?

Obviously this election was an exciting event. For days it has been too close to call, and the Florida recount is still underway. If the winner is George W. Bush, he probably got fewer popular votes than Al Gore. 

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But by next January, this will all be forgotten, except, perhaps, by people with ill-conceived notions about how to "reform" (that is, abolish) the Electoral College and some hard-core partisans and their journalistic allies who will argue about whether the president has a "mandate." In American politics, mandates are, almost by definition, quite rare. Our system requires that there be two major parties—the insiders and the outsiders—and so each party will absorb all the competing views of people who want it to be on the inside. Only infrequently will there be enough agreement among these people to amount to any shared view of what ought to be done.

In January, what will count is what has always counted—how the president behaves. Jack Kennedy won with about the same popular vote as Richard Nixon, but people forgot about that after he was in office. Nixon had about the same popular vote as Hubert Humphrey, but we forgot about that, too. And Bill Clinton was opposed by a majority of the voters in both 1992 and 1996, and we also forgot about that. What made a difference for each winner was not his vote count or the absence of an alleged mandate, but how he acted.

For any president, I think, the key is to win the hearts of people by skill, decency, and humor and to fashion governing coalitions out of the diverse groups that make up Congress and its allied interest groups. Indeed, my guess is that one of the largest factors that motivates the one-fifth or so voters who are not confirmed partisans is a desire to see real problems solved by constructive action. Most of the time they don't think this will happen, a fact that contributes to the low opinion Americans have of politicians.

The task is to link a governing philosophy (and certainly Bush and Gore differ in their philosophies) with the skillful management of the media, Congress, and policy activists. During the campaign, Bush talked a lot about doing just this. And Gore talked in ways that made you think that his idea of building a coalition was to attack the rich, large corporations, and anybody who disagreed with him. But though Bush talked a better game, now he has to prove he can do it. We shall see.

Acquiring a good reputation is not just a matter of being liked, for a president's reputation has weight on Capitol Hill. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the more popular a president is, the more he can work his way with Congress. And that is true even though he has no real power to punish members of Congress who disagree with him.

Ronald Reagan was viewed by much of official Washington as an amiable dunce when he came to town. Certainly hardly any Democrats and only some Republicans thought he knew much about national affairs or had their insider grasp of how to make things happen.

But Reagan quickly became popular with people, even with many who had voted against him. And so in relatively short order he broke the air traffic controllers' strike, cut taxes, built up the military, and reduced some domestic expenditures. Some of these actions, such as breaking the strike and building up the military, probably helped him become popular, but others, such as cutting taxes and reducing expenditures, depended on his prior popularity. And some of his actions, such as allowing Paul Volcker to keep interest rates up in order to wring inflation out of the economy, made him briefly unpopular. But over the first term, he did so well at maintaining his standing that his re-election was almost automatic.

But there is a problem with pursuing popularity, and Clinton has shown us what it is: He did whatever was necessary to win applause no matter what the effect on public policy. The key is to link public cultivation with a steady, governing philosophy. Doing that is the test of a statesman. We shall find out if we have elected one.

James Q. Wilson is the author of books about crime, politics, bureaucracy, and human character.

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