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Death Race 2000

[whitespace] Handicapping American democracy

By Bob Harris

SO ON NOV. 3 we good citizens all traipsed down to the ballot box and exercised our democratic muscles by voting for the millionaire of our choice. Yippee. News coverage across the land exalted the holy ritual, airing man-on-the-street interviews with exiting voters who decried their non-voting fellow citizens as slackers and layabouts who shirk their civic duty and so deserve neither complaint nor quarter. Yuh-hunh.

And so now once again the tide of 30-second televised deceptions that so rudely cake mud over our Dawson's Creek reruns will recede for another term, and all of us who voted can finally and thankfully return to our slumber, content in the knowledge that once again democracy has worked its noble deed and the people have truly spoken. Yeah, right.

An Associated Press computer analysis has found that, of congressional candidates who entered the last two weeks of the race with the most financial resources--meaning money already spent and money still available, combined--96 percent won.

Ninety-six percent.

And it gets worse. In almost 60 percent of the House of Representative seats, winning candidates had a financial advantage of at least 10-1. No wonder pro wrestlers are getting into politics. It's the only other major sport that's so obviously fixed. Which isn't to say there aren't occasionally a few exceptions. This year's voters rejected the highly partisan Sens. Lauch Faircloth and Al D'Amato, and the national Republican effort on behalf of House candidates, led by Newt Gingrich, now better known as the Kerry Collins of the GOP.

Lauch and Al both outspent their opponents and lost, and Newt frittered away a huge financial advantage on a spree of Monica Lewinsky ads. In the 30 races where the GOP bought airtime to show pictures of Monica, the Democrats won 18 seats.

So factionalism and Jenny McCarthyism are losing issues to a large chunk of the citizenry.

And Americans do tend to intuitively reject the Perots and Huffingtons who appear to be buying their way into office. The more the money comes from somebody else, the better we can maintain our illusions.

But it ought to tell us everything we need to know that the only significant victory by an independent, out of over 500 major political races nationwide, was by a professional wrestler. And if "The Body" can get elected, how long will it be before motocross, tractor pull, and drag-racing champions start jumping into public office?

Make no mistake--voting is the essence of democracy, absolutely indispensable and fundamental. But it means nothing without an informed and active electorate whose activities ensure a genuine choice at the ballot box. Real democracy doesn't happen because we all vote for one guy over another. Real democracy is what we all do in the time between Novembers that gives trips to the voting booth their meaning.

Women didn't get the vote in America because men changed the laws out of the goodness of their hearts. Women got the vote because they marched and protested and fought for the vote, literally for generations. Civil rights in the South didn't happen because of a walk to a voting booth, but because of a March on Washington. And so on.

THE POLICY AUCTION we call the 2000 presidential election has already begun. It'll take at least $20 million just to compete in the primaries. The only Democrat with access to those kind of dollars is Al Gore. End of story. The GOP won't make the illegal fundraising allegations stick because both sides of the aisle have more dirty money than Papillon.

The rest of the mule team--Gephardt, Bradley, Kerrey, Kerry, Wellstone, etc.--have about as much chance at the nomination as Vinny Testaverde has at winning a Super Bowl. One of these five will probably be the VP.

I'm inclined to pick Bill Bradley, because he's tall. Seriously. Tall candidates do really well in the TV era. Besides, he hasn't done anything for the last few years, so he's prepped for the job. But Bob Kerrey is raising a lot of cash on sheer early hustle, and platform shoes are back in style, so he looks like No. 2 for now.

No, I didn't mean it that way.

MEANWHILE, the only GOP candidates with a financial prayer are Steve Forbes, George W. Bush, Lamar Alexander, and Newt Gingrich. Liddy Dole has an outside shot if she gloms the hubby's Rolodex.

Quayle, Bauer, Ashcroft, Kasich, and a half-dozen GOP governors are just kidding themselves. Their poll numbers make the new $20 seem like a runaway hit. Cripes, if they're gonna do something for vanity's sake, they really ought to just mosey on down to GlamourShots and pose a few for the missus. Same impact on history, millions of dollars cheaper, and they throw in the frame for free. Bush fils is the current favorite, but his straw-poll performance will decline rapidly once he exists as more than a name outside of Texas. Besides, there's a chance he won't even run because of his reportedly, um, er, active, uh, personal life, which apparently only recently finally began to resemble that of a properly unsatisfied Republican.

Evidently Bushboy has more ass to cover than Dr. Laura.

NEWT GINGRICH can't win, because he has a public approval rating only three points ahead of having a weasel running loose in your sinuses. Besides which, he owes Bob Dole bigtime for the tobacco-money rescue on last year's ethics fine, which means if Liddy runs, Newt will probably have to support her campaign. Assuming he isn't too busy feeding on carrion.

Lamar Alexander can't win, because I sat behind him on a plane a while back and absolutely no one recognized him, even though we were flying into Tennessee, where he used to be the governor. The guy's harder to remember than the last time "The Family Circus" was actually funny. Which leaves Steve Forbes.

And since most Republican partisans have no problem with paying retail for government office--the use of private wealth to attain public authority is seen as a First Amendment right--there's no reason Steve Forbes can't win the nomination, except for the fact that he strongly resembles one of the Budweiser lizards.

Forbes has unlimited wealth, a tax plan that appeals to the fiscal conservatives, and a newfound hard line on social issues that plays well with people who speak Tongues as a second language.

He'd be the perfect GOP candidate if his eyes weren't on different sides of his head.

So ...

The early guess for 2000 here is Gore/Kerrey defeating Forbes/Liddy Dole (or whomever) by a narrow margin, with Republican control of Congress expanding by five to 10 seats.

Not that any of this matters much, since the left and right in the American spectrum are defined merely as the extremes of acceptable dinner conversation among the moneyed class while waiting for Carlos to decant the Chianti.

Until you and I and the rest of the American public begin doing the real work of democracy, and take it on ourselves to force a change in the way campaigns are financed, the rest is largely a sideshow, a bait-and-switch carnival game creating the illusion of actual democracy while retaining little of its practical meaning.

Or at least 96 percent of it is.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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