We cannot escape history but we can change it

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Columnist
Published October 2nd 2005 in St. Petersburg Times
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.
- ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Second annual message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

Imagine that you are the Edward Gibbon of the 31st century, writing the Decline and Fall of the United States of America . Where would you begin?

Perhaps at the beginning itself, with a certain grave birth defect known as the Electoral College. Intended to assure wisdom and compromise in the leadership of the nation, it became a wedge for splitting the country in two.

You would take into accoun t Buckley vs. Valeo , the Supreme Court decision that prostituted the government to campaign contributions.

You would recount the willful refusal to reconcile government spending and income, which left the economy in ruins and the nation at the mercy of foreign creditors.

You would be astonished not just by the invasion of Iraq that spread so much terror and anarchy in its wake, but equally by the fact that no one was held to account for squandering so many lives on a tissue of lies.

You would struggle to explain why the citizens of 21st-century America did no more to save themselves than the people of fifth-century Rome.

We cannot escape history but we can change it. The trouble is, we can't do that with political systems that have been so overcome by extremes as ours have. Extremism is the enemy of sensible decisionmaking and accountability.

Three factors are feeding extremism like high wind and dry brush in a forest fire: The Electoral College, congressional and legislative districting, and the presidential primaries.

It's probably impossible to replace the Electoral College with proportional or direct election. Three-fourths of the states would have to agree. But each could do separately what Maine and Nebraska have done, awarding electoral votes by congressional district. (Caution: Districting reform would have to come first.) This reform might not change the apparent outcomes, but it would influence strategy in healthy ways by restoring value to Republican votes in California and New York and to Democratic voters in Florida and Texas.

Redistricting reform is doable; 12 states already have taken the job altogether or partly out of the hands of their legislatures. Initiative campaigns are under way in Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts and California.

Gerrymandering makes general elections meaningless. When only primaries matter, the extremes of each party take over.

"We wonder why we're electing Democrats and Republicans who seem to be more extreme than the average Democrat or Republican, and when they get to the statehouse, they don't seem to talk to one another," Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University, remarked to th e Los Angeles Times.

The presidential primaries cater to the extremes also. In 2004, they destroyed the most competent Democrat, Bob Graham, and nominated the weakest, John Kerry. The Republican primaries did the same thing to John McCain in 2000. The nominations are sealed by mid March, four months before the first convention and eight months before the election.

Last week, half of the Democratic senators voted for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. But of the five presumed to be running for the presidency, only Russell Feingold had the guts to vote for him. As Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Joseph Biden and Kerry apparently saw it, the Democratic interest groups that control the primaries would more likely forgive them their complicity in the Iraq disaster (which Feingold opposed) than their votes for a Bush appointee who was atypically competent, qualified and honest.

The regional primary system recommended by the Jimmy Carter-James Baker commission would make it unlikely that as few as 8 percent of the voters would ever again dictate the nominees. But that seems to be a nonstarter in a Congress ruled by extremists.

Writing in the September Washington Monthly , the ever-astute Charles Peters noted that it was the Republican Party's surprise nomination of the internationalist, anti-Hitler Wendell Wilkie in 1940 that strengthened Franklin Roosevelt's hand for the inevitable war. Among other things, Wilkie supported the Selective Service bill.

Wilkie was truly the convention's choice, perhaps the last of that kind. Had there been primaries then to the extent there are now, some isolationist would likely have been the GOP nominee.

"Had Wilkie not won," writes Peters, "Hitler might have."

Think about it.

--Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is [email protected]