For awhile today, with a huge voter turnout and exit polls posted all over the Web giving Kerry an edge in most of the battleground states, it looked as if Americans would be spared another gut-wrenching finish to a Presidential election. Fat chance. With neck-and-neck tallies in Ohio, 191,000 absentee ballots outstanding in New Mexico, and new voting irregularities surfacing in Florida (where an astonishing 1.6 million absentee ballots must still be counted after the vote is recorded tonight), it's starting to feel like 2000 all over again, isn't it? Oh well. We better all brace for another inconclusive night--even if a narrow victory looks to be hand for either candidate. This won't be over until it's over.
Couple of thoughts about the state of our national politics today: If its any consolation, this is as old as the Republic. Indeed, long periods of bitter red state-blue state standoffs have been the norm for the country--punctuated by fleetingly brief moments of national unity (Pearl Harbor, 1964, 1984, September 11). Students of American history know that the nation began with ugly rifts between Jeffersonian Democrats and Hamiltonian Federalists that put today's political mudslinging and intrigue to shame. The hate and distrust between Northern urban enclaves and Southern and Western rural states evolved into a bloody Civil War over the great issues of the 19th Century--abolition of slavery and federal versus states rights. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, the White House went back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, with charges of vote buying and irregularities common occurances every four years. We forget today how deeply Republicans disliked and distrusted Franklin D. Roosevelt, and or how contemptuous Democrats were of Ronald Reagan.
And yet, it's so nerve-racking and unsatisfying--especially after September 11. "George W. Bush once had a chance to be looking forward to a landslide victory today and a nation committed to standing together in defeating terrorism," Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in his column today. "Instead, the President is perilously close to defeat. The best he can hope for is a narrow victory that will leave the nation bitter, divided, and angry." By the same token, what can Democrat John Kerry expect should he pull out the slimmest of victories? Conservative stalwarts never seem to be as energized as when they have a Democrat in the White House they can despise. At my neighborhood polling place in northern Virginia today, two mild-mannered retired men chatted on the long line waiting to vote. One observed casually: "I don't trust John Kerry to do the right thing in the White House."
Let's hope that whoever is elected President this time can do the right thing and forge a national consensus. It's hard to see how. But there's always hope.