THE MIDTERM ELECTION campaigns drawing to a close have not, according to most assessments, inspired many voters. Slanderous advertisements and an effort to dodge major issues have dominated many campaigns. One explanation for this dispiriting reality, as The Post's political reporters have made clear in an enlightening series of articles, is the 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans, who are, David Von Drehle and Dan Balz wrote recently, "more evenly divided . . . than at any time in over a century." This split was manifest in the 2000 presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in one state; in the Senate, where the defection of one man cost the Republicans control; and in the House, where a half-dozen seats keep the Republicans in the majority.
The even split did not produce total paralysis in Washington, despite appearances at times to the contrary. In its first year, the departing Congress mustered bipartisan support for several of President Bush's initiatives, most notably his tax cut and education reform, and for quick legislative responses to 9/11. In its second year, bipartisan majorities overcame Mr. Bush's opposition or indifference and reformed campaign finance laws, election procedures and corporate governance. But often stalemate has been the consequence of the near-even split. Neither side wants to give the other the slightest advantage, because a tiny tilt could tip large piles of campaign cash in the same direction and start a reinforcing cycle. So on important issues such as homeland security, both parties seemed more interested in locking up debating points for the campaign than in passing laws. On other important issues, both sides preferred just to duck. Thus did Congress and the administration once again shirk their responsibility to begin planning for the retirement and medical costs of the baby boom generation.
The same tendency to duck and weave has characterized the campaign. Because the parties mutually agree to gerrymander most of the country, a shamefully small number of congressional districts are in play, along with some key Senate seats. In most of those, candidates have not chosen to lead and persuade, as one might hope. We don't believe that most Democrats are enthusiastic about Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, nor that they have lost their fervor for gun control; but the party isn't talking much about either, because to do so would be considered tactically unwise. Similarly we doubt that Republicans have abandoned their dream of replacing part of the Social Security program with private retirement accounts, but for the most part they will no longer say so. Again, the tacticians counsel euphemism, throat-clearing and subject-changing attacks.
An election should be a time for parties to state their views and seek support. This election has been a time for parties to gauge the winds and trim their sails. That may explain another likely split on Tuesday -- between the minority of the electorate that will vote, and the majority that won't bother.