The presidential debates this year were a failure by the standard we use to measure our public entertainments: their ratings were abysmally low. It was not really the candidates' fault. Boredom with elections is one of the luxuries of our time. Not only have long prosperity and a seemingly unthreatened peace lulled us into political somnolence; many people believe that the government in general and the president in particular have had nothing to do with America's good fortune.
Technology alone has supposedly given us the new economy, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has seemingly removed the perils of war. So why pay close attention to what the candidates say?
The final indignity of the Clinton presidency may bring yet another piece of good fortune to the man who just won the White House while getting fewer votes than his opponent. Although the Independent Counsel Act is defunct and will therefore never cause the least trouble for George W. Bush, the office created under the act to investigate Bill Clinton still survives and continues to trouble him. Indeed, Robert Ray, Kenneth Starr's successor, has been extremely busy of late and shows every sign of intending to indict Clinton for perjury in the Monica Lewinsky case after the president steps down.
Before the election, I wrote in this column that "several possible squeaker scenarios could produce some strange political dynamics after November 7" [TAP, November 6, 2000]. Of course, I had no idea just how strange the outcome would be, though I started off with the possibility of "one candidate winning the electoral college and another winning the popular vote" and speculated that the Senate might end up tied 50-50. But where I really went wrong was in saying that if the popular vote went one way and the electoral college another, there could be a "crisis of presidential legitimacy."
Nothing about the 2000 election matters nearly as much as the ugly means by which it was brought to an end. Throughout our history, with the terrible exception of 1860, every party has been able to live with the victory of an opposing candidate for president. One reason is our confidence in a legal system that is supposed to stand apart from politics and limit the consequences of political defeat. The presidency of George W. Bush may not be the republic's happiest era, but it will be endurable. What is not so easily endured is the Supreme Court's betrayal of our trust.