As this column is written on Election Day, it is impossible to say which party, if either, will have triumphed by the time it is read. This, though, we already know: We will be seeing a lot more of all those things that nice people find so distasteful in politics. (As a not obsessively nice person, hurrah.)
Yesterday made clear that we continue to wallow in the glorious mud of a long and epic political struggle, the battle between the two great parties for a sustainable post-New Deal primacy. This fight has been going on since the populist revolution in the Republican Party that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It seemed as if it might be decided in 1994, when a sweeping voter backlash against a weak Democratic president resulted in Republican victories and Democratic defeats on every level of electoral politics, including the end of 40 years of Democratic rule in the House. But Bill Clinton recovered something of the Democratic footing; Newt Gingrich took a slider on the banana peel of hubris, and the Republicans failed to hold their position. So, however, did the Democrats.
In the presidential elections of 1996 and 2000, like that of 1992, neither party was able to prevail for a majority victory. (Every presidential election since Bush the Elder beat Michael Dukakis with 53 percent of the popular vote has been won by a candidate failing to take more than 50 percent.) The electorate in 2000 was so utterly divided as to throw the election into the courts. Voters continue to identify with each party in virtually equal minority percentages, with a solid and apparently growing block of independents, many of whom expressly prefer divided government.
Living in, as the political scientist Norm Ornstein puts it, an age of parity means that in coming years we will see more of:
* Seriously unattractive candidates. The New York Times recently ran one of those evergreens of political coverage, a piece on the "new" face of a previously well-known figure, in this case Hillary Rodham Clinton. The article stated that when the reporter noted to Mrs. Clinton that "she remains highly unpopular in large parts of the country, Mrs. Clinton smiled brightly and responded, 'That's because they don't know me.' "
Mrs. Clinton is very much of the moment. If you are somebody who strikes many people as appalling, or at least uninspiring, and yet you would like to rule the world -- congratulations. Parity politics means that now anybody really can grow up to be president. In an ordinary time, a politician who is persistently unattractive to a large percentage of voters -- Mrs. Clinton, for example -- cannot reasonably hope to prevail in statewide or national general elections.
But parity perversely rewards such a candidate. Call it the Gore-Bush Rule of Parity: A passionately divided core electorate means that any major party nominee will get 48 percent of the vote, no matter how weak that candidate is in one way or another. (Well, almost any. There remains a floor the voters won't go below; call it the Torricelli Exception.) To win, the nominee need move only a relative handful of votes; the rest are givens. Thus, the benefits of mass appeal and electioneering competence are minimized, and so are the penalties of unattractiveness and incompetence. Dweebs, feebs, stiffs and plates of lox, awake! Your time has come!
* More REALLY seriously unattractive candidates. Parity also encourages and rewards the politically ambitious whose appeal is so radically limited that a major party nomination is out of the question. Fringe candidates are the new kingmakers and king-breakers. Of the past three presidential contests, arguably two were decided by the vote-leeching effects of borderline candidates who could never win the office for themselves: Ross Perot made Bill Clinton president with 43 percent of the vote, and Ralph Nader put George W. Bush in with 48 percent. The third-party messiahs know their new power and naturally will exercise it -- and this will shape and distort the politics of the major parties. And voters will recall fondly the days when Pat Buchanan seemed sort of far out there.
* More desperate actions in desperate times. Bob Torricelli's I-can't-win-so-I-quit abandonment of the Senate race in New Jersey, James Jeffords's noone-likes-me-so-I'm-going-to-take-the-Senate-from- them abandonment of the Republican Party -- these are harbingers. With everything up for grabs every election cycle, and every race critical, nobody can be expected to draw the line at anything. Expect more vote thievery, more contested elections, more stunts of the Torricelli-Jeffords genre, more dirty tricks, more outrageous lies and slurs, more of everything that the League of Women Voters would rather see less of.
Should be fun, in a grim sort of way.