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A Good Election for Our System

By Gary Orren

This has been a far better election than the lamentations of the news media would suggest. The press has criticized the absence of serious dialogue on the issues, the preoccupation with personalities and images, the excessive belligerence of the contest, and the boring and trivial television debates. In short, we are told that the electorate has been deprived of a "decent election."

But these complaints, which have reached a crescendo in the final days of the campaign, do not entirely fit the facts. Further, they reflect a lack of historical perspective, and a misconception about how the American political system operates at its best.

In a perceptive review last August of the television coverage of the primaries, Paul Weaver charged the networks with a condescending and contemptuous attitude toward the candidates, and also with a portrayal of the campaign as Melodrama, featuring heroes, villains, and an underlying plot.

On both counts the coverage in the primaries was but a warm-up for the general election. The public and the media were eager for heroes in the fall of 1976. Gerald Ford could not fill this role, but Jimmy Carter held some promise. Instead, the Goliath of the primaries turned out to be an imperfect mortal, subject to nervousness and occasional lapses of judgement. Furthermore, Carter decided to shift gears after the primaries. He concluded that the strategy which attracted sudden media and public attention--the slightly enigmatic new face, the anti-partisan running against orthodox Democratic dogma--while successful in the primaries, might easily backfire in a general election campaign. He chose, instead, to fashion a more conventional less risky and less colorful campaign, stressing partisan issues and symbols, relying on organized labor and big city politicians, attacking the record of his opponent, emphasizing general themes without mapping specific programs. The press has never quite forgiven Carter for serving them a platter of "politics as usual."

For weeks we have been told that neither candidate is talking about the issues. To be sure, neither Carter nor Ford championed the issues in the primaries, defeating more issue-oriented, ideological opponents. However, by the standard of most U.S. presidential elections, since Labor Day both candidates have provided considerable insight into their positions on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues. And by that same standard, their views on most issues, particularly domestic ones, diverge sharply. Make no mistake. The campaign has revealed fundamental differences between their philosophies and the interests which each is committed to serve.

American voters want to be offered a meaningful choice in their elections, but our moderate political system cannot easily accommodate glaring ideological alternatives. In 1968 the polls confirmed that voters saw little or no difference between Nixon and Humphrey on the issues, particulary Vietnam--the candidates were perceived as too close together. In 1972, the polls showed that many voters saw Nixon and McGovern, "the clearest choice of the century," as too far apart on the issues. Recent polls indicate that in 1976 the voters are able to clearly perceive issue differences between Ford and Carter, but that the differences are not too extreme.

But there has been even more issue content in this election than these policy differences. By far, the central issue in 1976 is Gerald Ford's record. Ford has invited a referendum on his performance, and Carter has hammered away against it. The media has criticized these exchanges as unsubstantive, unspecific, and backward-looking, and has chided the candidates for not providing us with "visions" and "dreams" of the future. However, the kinds of issues which work best in our system--and which, therefore, have dominated our elections historically--are not those that chart the future but those that assess the past.

This retrospective flavor is a strength not a weakness of our system since it assures that administrations will be held accountable for their actions, for example, the elections of 1952, 1960, and 1968 were largely plebiscites on the performance of the previous administrations. Even though the incumbents did not run for re-election in those years, their successors were held accountable for the past. And in each case, the challengers were vague and imprecise; in 1952 Eisenhower pledged that he would "go to Korea," in 1960 Kennedy promised to get the country moving again, and in 1968 Nixon called for peace in Vietnam and law and order at home without specifying his plans. All three were less programmatic than Jimmy Carter has been in 1976.

Neither Ford nor Carter has shared with us his blueprint for the next four years, but it is wrong to suggest that they have not illuminated the issues. Neither has generated much enthusiasm, but the quality of the campaign should not be judged by how exicitng or charismatic the candidates are.

The candidates in 1976 certainly do not compare with our very best, nor the campaign with our most electrifying contest. Still, this election is not as deplorable as the media would have us believe, and they have done the nation a great disservice by spreading this fiction.

(Gary Orren is an Assistant Professor of Government who is writing a book on the 1976 election.)

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