In 1780, John Adams foresaw trouble. He said then, "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader: and converting issues in opposition to each other. This in my humble apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil."
Adams seemed to imply that the system would produce two parties, significantly different from each other. The danger, which he did not foresee, and which has been realized, was that of their becoming undifferentiated on the big issues, and of changing politics into a contest over irrelevant, marginal, and personal issues, such as have marked the current campaign.
On major socio-political issues of the last half-century the two major parties have been united. On the issue of domestic communist threats, dominating, the politics of the '50s, they competed with each other for primacy in anti-communism. In the '60s, supported by the press, they pressed the Viet Nam War, and in the last quarter-century have together advocated, campaign reform which seriously impinge on freedom of speech and assembly, but give preferential status to the two parties, in a demonstration of the validity of Parkinson's law that failing organizations and institutions, when they can, seek law to under-write their failing.
Judgment on traditional and sometimes divisive issues, was clouded, if not obscured, by claims and counter claims, by shared credits and blame. The ongoing prosperity was claimed by the Republicans as a carry-over from the Reagan Administration, whereas the balanced budget was claimed as an achievement of the Democrats. Current issues were given minimal attention, the candidates and parties preferring to argue about social security problems projected to arrive in 20 or 30 years, or which were dealt with 30 or 40 years ago. Disposal of future budget surpluses received an undue amount of attention. Both candidates ran as though running for governor of the United States, emphasizing issues which were primarily, and traditionally, if not constitutionally, state responsibilities: namely crime control, education and welfare.
Meanwhile Ralph Nader was circling the battle, charging that the Democrats had not done enough of what they were committed to do. Meanwhile a lame duck president, victim of the two-term limits of the Constitutional amendment, travels around the world seeking to confirm his "legacy" in foreign affairs, and proposing a domestic program beginning with reproductive health education and running on through pre-natal care, natal care, post natal attention, pre-school programs, schools of choice, reading mastery by the third grade, lap tops at the fifth grade, high schools of choice, community college and college aid, first-house loans -- every thing but money for a first car to go with one's first driver's license .
The Supreme Court was also involved in the campaign in a distracting way: one, in ruling that the Boy Scouts could exclude homosexuals, without ruling on similar problems with the Girl Scouts or Campfire Girls. It sustained a pro-abortion position and banned public prayer at public educational institutions' sporting events. Notre Dame has not lost a football game to any secular school that was subject to the court ruling.
Ex-President Bush appeared in his son's behalf, even though the son was reported as favoring phonics as a method of learning to read, thus seeming to reject his father's suggestion that people read "his lips." And ex-President Carter's defection from the Baptist Church came too late to influence the election or to give the pundits time to assess its impact.
Considering the complexity of the campaign it is surprising that it did not end in a closer vote. All might have been different if Gore had following Bush's beta kiss on Oprah's cheek, had given her an alpha kiss, comparable to the one he gave, on television, to his wife.
The next president may be chosen by 1000 votes cast by refugees from Castro's Cuba or from New York State income cases.
Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).