John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona.
Although the formal campaign for the presidency ended on Nov. 7, it’s evident to even the most indifferent observer of current events that the presidency is still being contested--vigorously contested by both legal and political means. The public is understandably concerned not only about the outcome but also about how it is achieved.
Whoever takes office in January will, regrettably and not deservedly, enter office with widespread partisan questions about his legitimacy. I believe the next president has earned and should be accorded the respect of all Americans, and a fair chance to lead this great nation. I am confident that we will determine who won Florida, and that he won it fairly. But many aggrieved partisans who supported the losing candidate will not, I fear, be quick to share my confidence. That is the new fact of our political life produced by the incredibly narrow margin of victory in this election, and by the resulting confusion and hard feelings in Florida.
The harsh partisanship of recent years that has contributed to the American people’s diminished esteem for public officials could grow worse, causing people’s faith in government’s ability to serve their needs to decline correspondingly. The next president will have to embark immediately on a series of confidence-building measures that might encourage Congress to help him find bipartisan solutions to difficult national problems, allay the suspicions of half the electorate and give hope to all Americans that, just maybe, those of us privileged to govern America are capable under trying circumstances of putting the nation’s interests before our own.
Patriots of both parties have offered sensible suggestions toward that end, from the new president’s choosing respected members of the other party to serve in his Cabinet to reconciling, with fair compromises, some of the policy priorities of both parties. But let me offer one measure that I think would greatly enhance the prospects for bipartisan progress on the nation’s business, help the new president confound expectations of ineffectiveness and begin restoring Americans’ faith in the credibility of their leaders.
When all the money that washed through this election cycle is counted, $4 billion or more will have been spent on federal and state campaigns, half again as much as was spent on all races in 1996. Voter turnout, up slightly from 1996, was still only a little more than half of all eligible voters. Most discouraging was the abysmally low turnout among voters age 18 to 29 — just 38 percent.
Clearly, the rushing stream of cash, coming in the form of huge, unlimited contributions known as soft money, has done precious little to encourage participation in our democratic processes. On the contrary, it has increased public indifference and cynicism by, among other things, underwriting much of the negative advertising that is intended to drive down voter turnout.
More troubling than the public’s widespread neglect of its most fundamental civic responsibility — voting — is its deeply rooted perception, to the point that it has become part of American folklore, that we elected officials of both parties are so narrowly self-interested that we are incapable of reforming the practices and institutions of our democracy to meet the challenges of our times. Public expectations for government seldom run higher than “Maybe they won’t do too much harm.”
I am a conservative. I believe it is a healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical about the purposes and practices of public officials and to refrain from expecting too much from their government. Self-reliance is the ethic that made America great. But when healthy public skepticism becomes widespread cynicism bordering on alienation, conservative no less than liberal officeholders should recognize that we share the primary responsibility for convincing Americans that our government still embodies our national ideals. When the people come to believe that their government is so dysfunctional or even corrupt that it no longer serves basic constitutional ends, our culture could fragment beyond recognition.
Many, if not most, Americans believe we in government conspire to hold on to every political advantage we have, lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. They believe we would pay any price, bear any burden, to ensure the success of our personal ambitions, no matter how injurious the effect on the national interest. And who can blame them, when the wealthiest Americans and richest organized interests can make huge donations to political parties and gain the special access to power such generosity confers on the donor.
Were Congress and the president to agree to ban soft money — the five- and six-figure checks that have effectively nullified all legal limits on campaign contributions — even while agreeing to reasonable increases in hard money limits imposed more than a quarter of a century ago, we would remove one of the most durable impediments to achieving bipartisan consensus on reforming entitlements, the tax code, government spending, HMOs, education and tort law.
Soft money’s practical effect on the legislative process is to elevate both parties’ allegiance to their chief donors above our ideological distinctions and our responsibility to address pressing national priorities. Indeed, partisan deference to core supporters of both parties is a less significant cause of legislative gridlock than is our gratitude to the chief underwriters of our campaigns in elections that are less a battle of ideas than a test of political treasuries.
Trial lawyers, as major donors to the Democratic Party, prevent any reform of HMOs that doesn’t encourage explosive increases in costly litigation, while insurance companies, as major donors to the Republican Party, resist even basic fairness in empowering patients to make life-or-death decisions regarding their own health care. Surely, we can do better than this.
When the new Congress and the new president are sworn in, let us remove soft money’s negative effect on bipartisan cooperation and on our public discourse. Let us take this sensible first step on the long road to convincing the American people that their representatives in Congress and their president are patriots first and partisans second.