A year ago in these pages, I described the 2000 contest as a "parliamentary election." With both the House and Senate so near the tipping point, the legislature and executive are genuinely at stake at the same time, as they typically are, though in a different way, in parliamentary systems. Indeed, with the Supreme Court so closely divided, all three branches are in play. The 2000 election could give Republicans control of the entire federal government for the first time since 1932, and it could give Democrats the same span of control without crushing economic and fiscal pressures for the first time since the 1960s.
Despite tight polls as the campaign heads into the home stretch, either party could still sweep the election in the sense of ending up with at least nominal control of all the levers of power. But several possible squeaker scenarios could produce some strange political dynamics after November 7.
A close presidential race raises the constitutional possibility of one candidate winning the electoral college and another winning the popular vote. If that were to happen this year, Gore would be the one likely to capture an electoral-vote majority, as a result of narrow victories in the larger states. But his presidency would be tarnished from the start. There is even the mathematical possibility of a 269-269 electoral tie, which would throw the contest into the House of Representatives (if the defection of a single elector did not first tip the outcome). Both scenarios are improbable, but a close election is a reminder of the potential for a crisis of presidential legitimacy created by the electoral college. Most likely we will only be able to get rid of that legacy of the founders' distrust of democracy when the improbable actually happens.
If November produces smaller majorities for either party in the House and Senate than the Republicans have now, we could also see some strange twists in Congress. A narrow majority in any legislature tends to undermine decisive action and give undue power to potential renegades. With a five-vote majority in the House and a four-vote edge in the Senate, the Republicans have been on a short leash. If the Democrats win this year, they could find themselves in the same position. In fact, the Democrats could well pick up four Senate seats, in which case Senator Lieberman's persistence in his Connecticut race could cost the party its majority and thus control of the committees. If either house dangles by a thread, the defection or death of a single member could switch party control. Already, one House Democrat, James Traficant of Ohio, has said he will vote for the Republican leadership. The death of Senator Paul Coverdell recently gave the Democrats an extra vote. Control of the Senate could hinge on Strom Thurmond's pulse for the next few years.
By now the reader should have all the material necessary to concoct a political thriller, but there is more. The 2000 election could also lead to another round of divided government, including the kind of double flip we had in 1992-1994, as the party that wins back the presidency proceeds to lose control of the Congress. If Bush were to win this year, it is unlikely the Republicans would simultaneously lose the House and Senate. But given the historic pattern of midyear elections (favoring the nonpresidential party, almost regardless of the popularity of the president), the Republicans could well lose control of Congress in 2002. Like Clinton in 1992, Bush would effectively have a two-year presidency in the sense that his window of programmatic opportunity would be short-lived.
That prospect is even more likely for Gore and the congressional Democrats if they both win this year. Even the most optimistic forecasts for the congressional Democrats project only narrow majorities. If the Democrats squeaked to a sweep, their control of Congress would immediately be at risk in 2002.
Many parliamentary systems tend to have unstable majorities and frequent changes of government. The United States, in contrast, has typically had stable congressional majorities and long stretches of either Republican or Democratic dominance in national politics. Based on that history, political scientists have for decades been anticipating a "critical election" that would decisively shift power toward one party or the other. Conceivably, the 2000 election could still turn out to produce that result if one party sweeps and then consolidates its position. For example, if the Republicans win, they might weaken unions as a political force through legislation, and make as many as four strategic Supreme Court appointments. Even a squeaker-sweep could be a tipping-point election.
But this may also be a seesaw political era of narrow and temporary majorities for which our past offers little guidance. Instead of a clear-cut party victory, the 2000 election could end up producing a kind of coalition government more common in parliamentary systems. Bush has been emphasizing his ability to work with Democrats; if Gore wins, he will likely have no choice but to work with Republicans. How much he would have to compromise would depend on the margin of victory.
Under these circumstances, the Naderites could well end up damaging progressive causes in more ways than one. Not only may they shave enough votes from Gore to tilt the election to Bush (most likely by giving him Oregon, Washington, or New Mexico). They may also, if Gore squeaks by, so weaken him that he lacks the kind of mandate that he would need to get progressive policies adopted. Soon we'll see whether the election takes American politics past the tipping point--and just how stupendously self-destructive American progressives want to be. ¤