Oscar Wilde mused that in academic life, the reason politics were so sharp was because the stakes were so small. In presidential elections, the reverse is true. The stakes are huge. And the politics too often are “small,” meaning petty, petulant and fixated on winning rather than on governing.
This year’s race for the White House could have been different. As we know, it will be the longest and most historic on record. It started almost two years ago. It will end with either the oldest candidate ever, along with the first woman vice president, or an African American occupying the White House. But that breathtaking possibility must be balanced by reality and Wilde’s cynicism.
The stakes could not be greater. Wall Street is reeling from Monday’s meltdown that turned billions of dollars into dust. People fear that collapse is a precursor for the economy at large. The nation is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan is in turmoil and rumors persist about a possible attack on Iran to delay or deter Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. What these situations will do to future energy prices is not encouraging. And that leaves staggering problems over health care, social security, runaway liabilities and climate change that can no longer be deferred without incurring huge costs.
To make the politics larger, one would have thought that judgment, character, experience and disposition should be among the most important qualifications for president. Yet, what are the required qualifications for the Oval office? Ask a friend and bet that he or she does not know the answer.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It specifies only four qualifications for president: native born; thirty-five years of age; ten years residence in this country; and most vitally, a majority of votes in the electoral college. Constitutionally, we never have had an unqualified president.
Second, we still do not elect a president by popular vote as Democrats painfully learned in 2000. And we never elect a president by an absolute majority vote either. Today, half or less of all eligible Americans votes. With third party candidates, winners receive 50 percent or less of that vote. This means no more than a quarter of Americans eligible to vote determine who is president.
Third, the campaigns are too long and the primaries unbalanced, too front loaded and filled with potential landmines. Front loading on the Democratic side led to the furor over the accreditation of Michigan and Florida who moved their primaries up against party orders. Republicans are not invulnerable either on that score but were luckier in 2008 than their opposition.
How then might Wilde’s cynicism be applied in terms of actions and reactions? First, we could try to amend the Constitution to take on the matter of qualifications. Boy, would that be an interesting debate over what “litmus tests” might be inflicted on us.
We could choose to abolish the Electoral College and rest everything on the popular vote. Or, we could be hugely cynical. If the pundits and political strategists are correct, there are only a handful of so-called “battleground” states that are in play to determine the president. Ohio is the one cited as the center of strategic gravity. The next president it is asserted will win there.
If that is the case and the other 49 or so states neutralize each other, why not simplify the process, save huge amounts of time, angst and money, and let Ohio choose? Since most Americans find better things to do on the first Tuesday in November on years divisible by four, such a step would be tacitly supported by a majority of us.
Since cynicism does not yet run that deeply, instead of consigning a few battleground states as presidential surrogates, then perhaps, we can recall some history. As the Founding Fathers originally envisaged choosing a president and vice president, the former won a majority of votes in the Electoral College. And runner up became vice president.
If that held today, we would choose either a McCain-Obama or an Obama-McCain administration - a potential dream team perhaps. Since all parties pay lip service to bipartisanship, a bipartisan executive branch would be the best example of that commitment. But it could become nightmarish if the result simply shifted permanent gridlock from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.
There is, of course, a better way and one that has been argued in this column before. If we want serious politics for serious issues at a time when the stakes may never have been greater, we must engage the public - meaning all of us. That means universal suffrage in which all eligible Americans are required to vote. But that idea probably has less chance of being implemented than making Ohio our national surrogate. Still, one can dream.
Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.