By posting a record-setting electoral- vote loss (13-525), Walter Mondale has won the gratitude of constitutional curmudgeons everywhere.
Because the electoral majority is so huge, we will be spared the tiresome hand- wringing of the quadrennial Jacobins who seize every close election as an excuse to belabor the electoral college.
When John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 by some 112,000 votes out of tens of millions, the joke was: "Nixon got the fastest political education in history -- one night in the electoral college."
It was an example of misplaced cleverness, since the electoral vote in 1960 magnified the popular margin (as usual) rather than shrinking it. Even so, the hand-wringers customarily look to the vastly improbable hypthetical danger that the popular- vote winner might be the electoral-vote loser. After Jimmy Carter squeaked by Gerald Ford in 1976, we were told that the shift of a few thousands of votes in one or two critical states would have produced -- horror of horrors -- a "minority" president.
A hypothetical "danger" that has materialized only once (1888) in 49 presidential elections is statistically impressive only to neurotic worriers.
But the bolder, more forthright, point is this: Yes, it could happen. But what of it? The "one man, one vote" fever that has raged for the past two or three decades has distorted public perceptions about basic constitutional goals and mechanics.
We have become habituated to speaking as if the only legitimate test of a constitutional provision is whether or not it is "democratic." But anyone who thinks the Constitution was built on such simple, undiscriminating majoritarianism hasn't read or thought about it lately.
Presidents were never intended to be the marionettes of an undifferentiated "national" constituency. Presidents are elected by the voters of the states, as states. To the degree that any state is "overrepresented" in the Senate, it is also "overrepresented" in the electoral college, whose total votes equal the total number of senators and representatives. The electoral college did not, however, originate in elitist whimsy. It started with the great compromise of 1787 between small states and large ones.
If the electoral college might, in some future election, lead to a "minority" president, so might other constitutional provisions. We no longer elect vice presidents separately; hence a man with a constituency of one (the successful presidential nominee of his party) can succeed to the White House.
As for the possible obstruction of majority wishes, any complaint about the electoral college may as easily be lodged against the Bill of Rights. Were it not for certain constitutional provisions, your right to a jury trial, or free speech, or not to be subjected to Jerry Falwell's brand of Baptistry as the official U.S. religion would be subject to referendum, and might well vanish if enough people were of contrary mind.
The simple fact is that American government was never intended to be a conveyor belt for speeding the latest popular notion into law. After all, five judges appointed for life can overturn a law passed by 535 popularly elected members of Congress.
That presidents are elected by the states, and not by popular vote, was of no great importance this year, Ronald Reagan's popularity being what it was.
But supposing it had mattered, the Democrats would have been at a great disadvantage. To win the presidency you must begin with a bit of basic political arithmetic. Where do you find enough blocs of electoral votes to add up to 270, a majority?
The Democrats once had the South to count on as a base. But now that the South has discovered the Republican lever, the presidential Democrats have become geographically disembodied, while Republicans begin with most of the trans-Mississippi West in their pockets.
A party as thoroughly shellacked in the electoral college as the Democrats have been in their last two outings ought to be well educated. Instead, the response of their more advanced spirits has been: Shoot the teacher!
Despite many abolitionist assaults, the electoral college stands. Which means that the presidential Democrats are going to have to submit, like it or not, to the basic geographical disciplines of politics. National majorities begin with local and state concerns, and votes. By ignoring the platoons and battalions, the presidential Democrats now find themselves without an army.