The Election Dynamic

YOU and I share the responsibility for our country. If the United States were a business, we would be its shareholders, with voting rights. But elections, the nation's business meetings, are indirect, with candidates acting as proxies on the concrete issues and broader themes we want action on.

Because the US is a representative, not a direct, democracy, it can be frustrating to find candidates to represent what we want done. And if elected, will they follow through?

Fortunately, a basic dynamic underlies American elections that helps to offset the vulnerability we feel about the candidates and the process. The dynamic is between two fundamental political forces: individual freedom and equality. Ronald Reagan best represents the freedom value among recent leaders, and, say, Lyndon Johnson, equality. This polarity in values was there at the founding of the country, between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Today's GOP is still Reagan's party, wanting to pare back what it sees as the excesses of the Great Society, LBJ's grandiose attempt to compel economic and social equality in his time. Democrat Bill Clinton has let the Republicans succeed in testing the usefulness and efficacy of much of the government presence in the public's lives. At the same time, Clinton is holding out for certain values - under the broad heading of education, the environment, health care, and Social Security - that fit his party's liberal tradition.

How the public votes, as in the 1994 midterm election, which brought a highly charged freshman GOP class to Washington, can be viewed as keeping the basic freedom/equality polarity in balance.

Personalities are often less important than they appear. Unless a candidate's "negatives" - moral traits, harping manner, and such - sink him or her, voters will cast ballots for the individuals who they perceive best represent where the voters themselves stand on the freedom/equality spectrum, or for candidates who best represent what business needs to be done for the country over the next four years.

The structure of the national campaign is another matter.

The presidential-party nominations will be a white-water-rapids shoot. Some 10 percent of the GOP's 1,984 delegates to the San Diego convention will be chosen by the end of this month. By the end of the first week in March, highlighted by the Northeast (including New York), 31 percent will be chosen. A week later, the big Southern cluster of states, including Florida and Texas, will boost the total to 50 percent. Another 10 percent will be added when the Midwest states vote in the third week of March. And after the Western states, anchored by California, vote the following week, March will have seen three-fourths of the nomination balloting completed, leaving the remainder for April, May, and early June.

So we are about to see a big flash, with Republicans deciding whether to go with veteran Sen. Bob Dole or an upstart alternative. Sub-themes include how much of a role personal wealth will play in individual races. In the House, generally not more than 50 or 60 of the 435 seats are closely contested: Will that hold up this year? Will the Democrats regain the Senate?

These horse-race questions should not obscure the citizen's more fundamental valuation decisionmaking.

American democracy has been a marvel of accommodation. The US population has grown by more than 100 million people since Harry Truman's days, and seen an agricultural revolution that moved 25 million off the farms to the cities and suburbs. Today it is preparing for another great equality challenge - the long-term effects of holding 1 million people in jail. The business of the country is serious and ongoing past any election.

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