Stakes much higher this year, many observers say

A divided and angry electorate. A disputed outcome that could further divide the country and make it difficult for the next president to govern. A turning point for America’s relationship with the rest of the world and its ability to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. A record turnout, spurred by a new generation of first-time voters.

A catalyst for changing the way we elect our presidents and finance our elections.
patrick g, ryan
Sen, John Kerry is trying to unseat an incumbent president in the first national election since Sept. 11.

Those are some of the reasons why today’s election is unlike any other in American history, according to former elected officials and political operatives of both major parties, as well as veteran observers of past elections.

“Why is this election different than any other?” Republican consultant and former Reagan White House aide Ken Duberstein asked: “It’s because of DEA — we’re deeply, evenly divided as a nation. This is the first [presidential] election since 9-11, and the world has been turned upside down.”

Duberstein sees “the Democrats’ absolute hatred of George W. Bush and the Republicans staying in their base and doing everything to support him. It’s become absolutely polarizing. And the aftermath is trying to figure out how to govern … regardless of which candidate wins.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) also regards this election as unique. “I’d put it up there with the election of Franklin Roosevelt [in 1932], when the country was in a disastrous state, but then it was all economic,” he said from his Washington law office. “But this election revolves around national security and is much more serious.

“The ability of the U.S. to assert its leadership and cause other nations to follow has been so seriously eroded as to be almost nonexistent.”

Bumpers asserted that the Iraq war, which he blamed on President Bush’s “poor judgment,” seriously erodes our moral authority and makes our dealing with nuclear proliferation much more difficult.”

Former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that this is the first election since Congress passed the new campaign-finance law. He predicted there will be “a huge amount of analysis and proposed legislation” to rein in expenditures by so-called 527 groups, “but it’s going to be hard to do anything that is not contrary to the Constitution.”

Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a lobbyist, predicted a record turnout and added, “We learned four years ago that the nation is very divided, but those divisions have become even more deep and emotional even as voters sense fundamental differences that need to be resolved.”

Fazio, in South Dakota to help Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, called the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “the defining event that made the president’s reelection campaign viable. His leadership of the war on terror has been the essence of his campaign.”

Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), another lobbyist, in Pennsylvania helping Michael Fitzpatrick campaign for the seat of retiring Rep. Jim Greenwood, sees this as “the first real election of the 21st century in which issues that will impact the country for decades will be determined.”

Such issues as international terrorism, the global economy and the emergence of new information technologies “impact the political debate at all levels,” he said. “So it is the first time voters will have a chance to pass judgment on where this nation is going in the first part of the 21st century.”

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, speaking from his law firm in Minneapolis, said the election was “akin to a holy war.” Inflamed passions on both sides had produced “a deeper level of polarization and belligerence than I’ve ever seen before.”

He said his 1984 campaign against President Reagan “was almost pleasant when I look back on it. There was none of this meanness on their side or ours. But with all the concern about Iraq and how we got into it and are handling it, and the fears about terrorism, there’s a highly emotional anxiety that slips into a good-versus-evil mentality.”

Mondale said, “There’s no way we can go forward except together, and I worry about whether we will be able to after this election.”

Washington attorney Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who held senior posts in the Carter and Clinton administrations, said there’s “a marked difference between the presidential rivals, which is more personal than is normally the case.

“This comes at a time when if we ever needed some civility and some bipartisanship, we’re going to need it when this election is over. That’s going to be a very, very serious obligation of whoever is elected. But there’s no question that it’s going to be more difficult to achieve.”

Lobbyist and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) said that “there’s no doubt” this is a watershed election “about big issues, Iraq and the war on terror, which has made it a more personal election than any I can remember. It’s produced an intensity in every precinct that we’ve never seen before.”

Harry McPherson, a Washington lawyer who was an aide to President Johnson, called this “a spectacularly important election. … We’ve had a 53-year run since 1947 in which the government was in the hands of people, for whatever limitations they had, who essentially shared a worldview of how American power should be used and how we should relate to other countries.

“Suddenly, that changed in the past four years. Whatever President Bush may say about our great allies standing up for us, he essentially repudiated that sense of our interdependence. If people say OK and vote for him to continue, then at least half the American people will show not only no sense of regret but almost an indifference or an arrogance towards the view the rest of the world holds. That would be a desperately bad result in my view.”