washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > David S. Broder

What Democracy Needs: Real Races

By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page B07

Without knowing -- or even being able to make a confident guess -- who will win Tuesday's presidential election, let me say for the record that this has been one of the best and most exciting White House battles I've ever covered.

Both candidates delivered their messages well, and the crowds of supporters were among the biggest and most enthusiastic since my first campaign in 1960.

_____More Broder_____
A Voter Portrait Waiting to Be Drawn (The Washington Post, Oct 28, 2004)
A Less Than Ideal Choice (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
Electoral 'Fixes' (The Washington Post, Oct 21, 2004)
About David S. Broder

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At a University of Chicago panel the other night, we heard the complaint that some of the biggest issues facing the country -- notably, what steps to take next in Iraq and what to do about the gaping hole in the budget and the lack of any plan to meet the looming costs of Social Security and Medicare -- were barely addressed.

True enough, but the issues that were discussed in the three debates were certainly germane to people's lives: the war on terrorism and collaboration with allies; the expensive, inefficient health care system; and, not least, the distribution of the tax burden to finance our government.

Compared with the arguments about a supposed missile gap or the defense of Quemoy and Matsu -- features of the storied Kennedy-Nixon campaign -- or such synthetic issues as the Pledge of Allegiance controversy of 1988, this was pretty serious stuff.

If you want to find fault with this campaign, turn your eyes from the presidential race to the elections that will determine the makeup of the new Senate and House. That is where our system of representative government really failed.

In theory, one-third of the 100 Senate seats are being contested this year. But in fact only nine seats are in doubt -- six of them where incumbents have retired.

In almost all the others, the gap in finances is so great that it's like sending The Post newsroom's softball team out to play the Boston Red Sox. Even in states that are highly competitive in the presidential election, Senate campaigns often are walkovers.

Look, for example, at Ohio. On Sept. 30 Republican Sen. George Voinovich had $4.2 million in cash on hand; his Democratic opponent had $93,276. In Nevada, another presidential battleground, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid had $3.3 million, his Republican opponent, $15,322. Similar mismatches can be found in many other states.

The claim can be made that these are well-entrenched, popular incumbents who probably would win anyhow. But in more than half the states with Senate races, voters are being denied the experience of seeing their senators seriously tested on their records or their plans.

The situation in the House of Representatives is similar -- but markedly worse. Of the 435 House districts, barely three dozen have real races this fall. This means that 400 of the members are not being subjected to the discipline of explaining and defending their legislative votes to their own constituents.

In their most recent filings, 47 House members were sitting on piles of $1 million in campaign cash. Fifteen of them had no major-party opponents; virtually all the rest might as well have gone unchallenged. In 21 of their districts, the opponents had less than $10,000 cash on hand for the final weeks of the campaign.

With two-thirds of the Senate seats and more than 90 percent of the House seats effectively uncontested in November, the basic principles of representative government are being severely eroded. Repairing that damage is perhaps the most important political reform on the agenda.

The Supreme Court has accepted a Texas redistricting case that will give the justices another opportunity to speak to the issue of political gerrymandering, the prevalent practice that locks the residents of most legislative and congressional districts into the prison of one-party domination. Curbing that practice would be the single biggest step to more competitive elections.

But as the Senate numbers show, even in competitive states, challengers can be effectively silenced by a shortage of campaign money. A modest public subsidy of those challenger campaigns -- by offering either free airtime and mailings or "seed money" cash -- would reward taxpayers with more meaningful choices at very small cost. And then we could have healthy campaigns up and down the ballot, not just at the top.

A closing personal thought: Emotions are running high about this presidential choice. Take a moment, before you vote, to remind yourself that this republic has weathered worse storms and, thanks to the Constitution, has never failed to recover its bearings and adhere to its principles. Resolve not to let the defeat of your favorite candidate shatter your faith in America or turn you away from politics. There will be another day. Remember the Red Sox.


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