Back From Germany And Off to the Polls

WHEN the "open up the process" crowd start in on how hard it can be in America to register and vote, Boston City Hall must be a good representation of the bureaucratic byzantinism they are talking about.

For a start, the building looks like an Aztec temple doing a headstand. One enters at what appears to be the ground floor, actually the third floor; no one is sitting at the information desk. There is a floor directory, but no building directory to be found. But finally making it to the election department, and seeing the door wide open and the red, white, and blue bunting over the counters, one knows the public servants there have a sense of what they are doing, of the larger purpose they serve.

They are eager to help a voter who has returned early from abroad and thus no longer needs an absentee ballot, even if it takes four of them to reach consensus on the right procedure. Early November is to the election department what the Christmas rush is to the department stores of Downtown Crossing nearby: the main event.

There is a charge in the air in the city at an election, something that one senses rather than sees, a feeling of shared experience, that all the people are thinking about the same thing. An election is like a World Series game in which everyone, even those in the stands, has a chance at bat.

It has been instructive to keep an eye on the United States presidential race from abroad these past several weeks while following the German political scene, too. These are challenging enough times for the US: We are justified in asking the winners of this month's elections, Do you really know what the problems are, and will you really work to solve them?

But these are even more troubling times for Germany. Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years after reunification, Germans are taking their collective frustrations out on the foreigners that continue to pour across the border in search of asylum. The violent attacks are scaring away investors, officials warn; the point is particularly important in the east. Germans are worried about their image; they should worry about their reality.

In both Germany and the United States the public process seems stuck in gridlock; there are so many political unmentionables that the public debate gets divorced from reality. One begins to think that the earnest reporting of the flaps over Dan Quayle's misspelling of "potato" or Bill Clinton's draft-board history signals that these nominal issues are surrogates for some other group of issues too emotionally charged even to be raised.

In the United States, the agenda that dare not speak its name (not loudly enough to get acted upon, anyway) has been the cluster of issues around the deficit, the national debt, and taxes. If Ross Perot's harping has been sufficient to get these onto the national screen, the people owe him a great debt of gratitude.

In Germany there is wide consensus that "foreigners" are the issue, but the Kohl government's emphasis seems to be more on controlling the influx of them than trying to stop people from attacking them.

Ironically, both the Democratic and the Republican parties put forward candidates this year who could be credited with being pragmatic, centrist, consensus-builders - or faulted for being wafflers who change their minds so often as to have no clear sense of core principles. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is likewise a coalition-builder with an instinct for the middle. All these sensible centrists have problems at this time.

To see the problems abroad is to wonder what problems remain invisible to us in our own country because we are inured to them. To see how fragile democracy is everywhere makes one appreciate one's own voting privileges all the more. We keep asking, How are the abstractions of a constitution given life and breath by the people and the government they elect? How are rights and responsibilities balanced? How is one right balanced against another?

If politics is, as Bismarck put it, the art of the possible, politicians in both the United States and Germany will need an expanded sense of what is possible today.

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