The “Seinfeld” election

St. Louis, Missouri.  A “Seinfeld” election is an election about nothing, precisely how one political analyst saw the 1998 US midterm election. The allusion, so very American, would not be lost on Filipino fans of the Jerry Seinfeld show, a hilarious sitcom that recruits the most powerful emotions in the name of the most insignificant things.  Yet the 1998 US vote was no Seinfeld election.  It was local politics at its best, and Americans had reason to take it seriously.

Nearly every analyst had predicted that many would stay home on election day rather than waste time on an election that is all sound and fury but signifies nothing.  Yet the 38% turn-out, though still low, was not as low as everyone had expected it to be.  The rainy weather in most parts of the country did not help.  It was freezing outside the voting precinct I visited in St. Louis county, but people came.  Many did not because they wanted to send out a message to the president or to the Republicans about Monica Lewinsky.  They came because they wanted their voices heard on very important issues like abortion, the use of marijuana as medicine, class sizes, retirement benefits, or what to do with the excess taxes collected by government.  In Denver, Colorado, voters came out to vote because they wanted a new stadium for the Denver Broncos, the subject of one ballot initiative.

For the most part, the issues were local.  In Missouri, a young man distributed leaflets against “Proposition One”, which would “spend a billion of your tax dollars to plow a 10-lane highway through Creve Coeur Lake Park, tearing down 400-year-old trees and filling the park with smog and noise.”  Another activist for animal rights vigorously campaigned for the proposition to ban cockfighting.  In at least 26 states all over the US, similar referendum issues took their rightful place on the ballot and crowded out the names of politicians.  They were the reason people went out to vote.

Most of the political contests were no contests at all.  Only a handful of the 34 US senate seats and 435 house seats at stake were closely fought.  It was these seats that gave the Democrats reason to celebrate.  In North Carolina, the incumbent 2-term Republican senator, Lauch Faircloth, tried to demonize his young opponent, John Edwards, by pairing him with Clinton in very crudely done negative political ads.  Voters did not find the ads amusing, and booted him out.

In New York, 3-term senator Alfonse D’Amato, who initiated the investigations against Clinton and made political capital of the Lewinsky scandal, suffered an equally stunning upset in the hands of Charles Schumer, a close Clinton friend.  In many ways, the midterm elections may be read as a personal triumph for Bill Clinton, though his troubles are far from over.

Both houses of Congress remain securely in Republican hands, and up to this point, impeachment is still on the agenda.  In the Senate, where the Republicans hoped to win 5 more seats, the ratio was unchanged at 55-45.  In the House of Representatives where all 435 seats were being  contested, it was the Democrats that won 5 additional seats, thus shaving the Republican lead to only 12.  In all previous elections, the party of the president always lost the midterm elections.  Not this one.  The Republicans clearly lost it, even if the Democrats did not always win it.

In Minnesota, both parties fielded very strong candidates for governor.

The Republicans deployed St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, while the Democrats ran Attorney General Hubert Humphry III, son of the illustrious former vice-president.  Both were thrown out of the ring by former wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who ran under Ross Perot’s Reform Party.  This is America, Ventura proclaimed on TV on the night of his victory, a country where everything is possible.

Indeed everything is possible in this fascinating multiracial society.  In Missouri, the black civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), campaigned against the Democratic candidate for the US Senate even if they knew that the incumbent Republican senator had a far worse record on civil rights issues.  The black vote was decisive, and the ironic spectacle of black civil rights activists toasting a conservative Republican senator on victory night unfolded before my uncomprehending eyes.

In Springfield, Colorado, home of a growing colony of Christian Right movements, I briefly met Dr. James Dobson, founder and spiritual leader of the group called “Focus on the Family”.  He is a smaller version of Brother Mike, but no less interventionist on political matters. A great admirer of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, he turns off a lot of Republicans with whom he aligns himself.  They cannot stomach his meddling in politics in the name of religious values.  In the US, religious groups that avail themselves of tax-free privileges may take positions on issues, but they are explicitly banned from endorsing candidates or campaigning against them.  Many such organizations lose their tax-exemption privileges for violating the strict ban on partisan political activities.

Dr. Dobson cannot however resist the temptation of playing God when dealing with politicians who seek his blessing.  He sends out printed endorsement letters to voters – in his “personal capacity”, he insists. But he fools no one. In contrast to the unflattering picture painted by American media, the 1998 election, to my mind, has brought out a level-headed American electorate that cares about issues and rejects the extremism of the Christian Right.


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