Interview ¦ November 5, 2000
Vote results could put U.S. to test

By Lars-Erik Nelson

WASHINGTON - All of a sudden, in a time of peace and prosperity, we face a presidential election that could challenge the integrity of our 211-year-old system of government.

We may wake up Wednesday morning to find a President who has won only a technical victory, with no popular mandate, and who faces a Congress that is either hostile or so equally divided that it will be paralyzed by gridlock.

A once-drowsy election between two mainstream candidates who have been unable, so far, to get more than 50% support from the public has somehow turned into one of the most decisive contests in our history.

Also at stake in Tuesday's national elections:
• Whether you retire in comfort or in poverty.
• Whether you get tax cuts that are across-the-board or targeted toward
specific need - or any tax cut at all.
• Whether abortion remains an unchallenged constitutional right
for women.
• Whether we retreat behind a space-based missile shield and pull our troops
back from their peacekeeping roles overseas.
• And whether the government's role in health care for the elderly and
education is handed off to private entrepreneurs.

At the moment, however, the biggest unknown is the threat to our very system of constitutional government.

If, as now seems possible, Vice President Gore loses the popular vote to Gov. George W. Bush but wins more than 270 Electoral College votes, he will be the constitutionally elected President.

But, especially if Republicans keep control of the House and Senate, Gore would be tainted and perhaps even crippled for his entire term, unable to claim any kind of popular mandate and regarded by many of his foes as illegitimate.

“God help us if there's a split decision,” says pollster John Zogby. “I think you'd see a full-blown effort to delegitimize the winning candidate to the point of not recognizing his authority.”

Former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour says there would be-and could be-no opportunity to change the outcome by lobbying the 538 presidential electors. “Whoever gets those 270 votes is going to be the President, legitimately,” he said. “That's the system we have.”

The political reality is different. In 1992, after President Bush lost to Bill Clinton, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said he represented the 57% of Americans who voted against Clinton. In 1997, after Clinton won again, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) refused to answer with a simple yes when I asked him seven times whether Clinton was the legitimately elected President.

So not only is the presidency at stake, so is our system of governing.

Also under threat is the current guaranteed retirement benefit provided by Social Security - and perhaps even the health of the stock market.

David Langer, a consulting actuary in New York, argues that Bush's plan to divert Social Security taxes to private accounts has a little-noticed but basic flaw.

Bush's plan would divert up to $80 billion a year into the stock market (assuming most taxpayers participate). This flood of cash would drive up the price of stocks way beyond the value of their dividends.

Therefore, your retirement earnings would not be a safe investment, like blue-chip stocks that pay steady dividends. They would be dependent on capital gains - whether the stock rises or falls in value. When stocks are divorced from their real underlying value, the market turns into a casino. Instead of getting a guaranteed retirement, you would be playing roulette.

If Bush wins - and keeps a Republican Congress - he has promised his supporters to oppose abortion and will at the least sign a bill outlawing partial-birth abortions. Though he denies he has any litmus tests, he would probably appoint right-to-life judges to the Supreme Court with the aim of overturning the abortion rights contained in the Roe vs. Wade decision, though some believe that outcome is unlikely.

Bush also plans to privatize, at least in part, the current Medicare health insurance system and public education, both by the use of vouchers to enable taxpayers to buy these services on the private market.

His tax-cut plan is skewed to the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers, as opposed to Gore's plan, which targets tax cuts toward dependent care, conservation, tuition expenses and other specified activities.

On foreign policy, the country would no doubt remain on its current course, even though Bush has questioned U.S. peacekeeping operations abroad. The reality is that Bush and his top advisers come from the same Establishment that has set current policy.

One potentially bottomless expense is Bush's intention to build a space-based missile defense system, whose cost could reach the skies.

BOTH CANDIDATES pledge to provide prescription drug care for the elderly, but Bush's plan would cover only the poorest retirees. Gore's somewhat costlier proposal would cover all retirees who sign up for it.

Finally, the election will determine the future of the two political parties. If Gore loses and Hillary Rodham Clinton wins a Senate seat in New York, she will be the Democrats' major celebrity, and could push the party further to the left to regroup with Ralph Nader backers.

If Bush loses, the Republicans' star will be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who mobilized millions of voters eager to reform the political finance system.

Either way, this seemingly endless, sleepy contest has suddenly become one of our most dramatic elections ever.