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Five Election Myths

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day, as always, is fraught with peril. Beware the seductiveness of opinion polls, which can mislead badly; beware the even greater attraction of exit polls, which have so often been wrong. Beware the too-early commentary, the too-swift judgment; and, above all, beware the hopeful, reassuring cliches that will be passed around today and tomorrow, giving false succor to winners and losers alike. Among the most dangerous:

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The Republican Party will benefit from some time out of office. Not necessarily. Those Republicans who comfort themselves with this argument should remember the example of the British Conservative Party, which was ejected from power by Tony Blair in 1997 and spent the next decade tearing itself to shreds. Spared the time-consuming business of governing, the Tories had more time to argue with one another about basic principles and split themselves into warring factions. As a result, they have nominated one unelectable leader after another and have remained out of power.

The Democratic Party will become more thoughtful and responsible when in power. History tells a different story here, too: After decades in opposition, the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, vowing to reform Congress. For a while, they tried. Then they gave up. If anything, the subsequent Republican Congresses proved to be bigger spenders and more avid consumers of pork than their predecessors had been. More to the point: The current Democratic Congress is, so far, no better.

A Congress and White House under the control of a single party will function more efficiently. This, as Bill Clinton can tell you, is manifestly not always the case. To cite another cliche: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without the need to make cross-aisle deals, the temptation to make bad decisions is great. Also, if and when the president becomes unpopular, Congress has an incentive to defy him, regardless of his party -- and vice versa.

If Barack Obama wins, our standing in the world will improve immediately, just because he's "different." There will, I am sure, be a brief moment of shock and surprise when the rest of the world learns that one of its most treasured beliefs -- "whatever happens, the Americans are always more racist than we are" -- is untrue. There will also be a good deal of rejoicing at the passing of the hated Bush administration. But reality will set in quickly as foreigners discover, along with American voters, that the American president isn't as powerful as they think, can't change everything immediately and won't be able to change some things at all. A President Obama would not be able to end the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would not be able to make the stock exchanges rise, and he would not be able to halt the recession right away. And that's only the short-term disappointment. In the long term, foreigners, along with American voters, will also discover that America is not about to give up on global capitalism and start "redistributing" the nation's wealth to others. Kenyans in particular will be disappointed.

After the election, we can finally stop talking about politics. No! This interminable political season will not, I'm afraid, be over so quickly. If Obama wins, every single one of his first moves will touch off debate: Not only will he be the first black president, the first post-boomer president and the first Democrat in eight years, he will be the first Democrat in office after Sept. 11, which makes all of his early security decisions crucial. By contrast, if John McCain wins, every U.S. polling organization -- along with the entire American political commentariat, as Slate's John Dickerson has observed -- will be utterly discredited. A lot of explanations will be required.

Whoever wins, the assessment of who's in and who's out of Congress, who's been appointed to what in the apres-Bush White House, and what it all means will take weeks and weeks. And yes, as my Post colleague Jackson Diehl notes, the new president will be very quickly tested, if not by Iraq then by Iran, if not by North Korea then by Syria: Joe Biden, at least on this single point, is correct. Alas, for those who liked the world better when there was nothing on television but Paris Hilton: It's not over till it's over -- and even then it's not over, not for a long, long time.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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