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Published on Monday, November 20, 2000 in the International Herald Tribune
Now the Presidency Is Part of the Seamless Celebrity Circus
by William Pfaff
 
The mediocrity of the candidates for the U.S. presidency, the poverty of the national debate and the domination of commercial interests over selection of the candidates and the framing of their platforms make one wonder if the country might not have done better to stay with the Electoral College as the constitution established it.

That wise document provided for a body of electors in each of the states, equal in number to the state's congressional representation, whose deliberations were expected to elect a qualified and responsible man to the presidency.

It was a consciously anti democratic system, placing the presidency at one remove from the emotions, ignorance or indifference of the citizenry.

The constitution said nothing about declared presidential candidacies, campaigns or political parties, but all of these rapidly emerged, and from 1796 onward, electors cast the presidential vote they were told to cast by their parties.

By 1832, popular election of presidential electors was the rule everywhere except in South Carolina (until the Civil War).

The Electoral College, like the nominated U.S. Senate (until 1913), was meant to assure rule by propertied interests. The general trend in U.S. life toward complicating everything means that unruly candidates today - who might undermine established, not to mention propertied, interests - have to be marginalized in a roundabout manner. We do today in expensive and hypocritical ways what the authors of the constitution did candidly and deliberately.

Bill Bradley, John McCain, Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan were eliminated this year, although all had something serious to say.

There were only two serious issues debated by the major party candidates this year: interventionist government with social reform ambitions versus tax-cutting laissez faire; and international interventionism meant to promote democracy and American ideas versus a narrow and unilateralist pursuit of national interest.

While this seemed a choice between principled policies, no great practical difference emerged. In what now is accurately described as the "permanent campaign," presidential administrations have become mere extensions of the ongoing competition between the parties, which depend on very large sums of corporate and special-interest money.

The ideological differences between the parties, raucously as they may be expressed, are in reality narrower than at any time during the 20th century, except on the so-called "cultural issues'" of abortion, feminism, family and religion.

There is virtually no debate at all on the fundamentals of foreign policy. International economic policy is set by the industrial and commercial lobbies, and by Wall Street.

National security policy is firmly in military hands, whatever the president's National Security Council may think. The chiefs of staff have established their veto over how and where U.S. forces are to be employed.

During the past decade, the Pentagon has developed its own worldwide network of influence, through its system of regional commands. However, this has gone all but unremarked in Washington, and had no mention in the presidential campaign.

The partisan controversy in which the vote count concluded has had the effect of joining presidential politics to the continuing televised narrative of scandal and celebrity that gives focus to common life in the United States.

The president-to-be and the candidates-that-were have taken their places in the real-life dramas of Monica and Bill, the Clinton impeachment and the Elián González and O.J. Simpson cases. The presidency itself has now been seamlessly merged into the continuous, 24 hour entertainment of American life.

Copyright 2000 IHT

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