George F. Will: Taking America's pulse before the elections
PRESIDENT: The leading figure in a small group of men of whom — and of whom only — it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for president. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1906)
WASHINGTON — What another lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, said of Milton's "Paradise Lost," can be said of this campaign: No one ever wished it longer. Voters, having heard enough, might agree that it is splendid that in "Hamlet" Polonius gets stabbed. He deserved this because his speech to Laertes taught politicians how to speak bromides.
Tuesday night, as returns reveal whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney has the smaller gigantic number of Americans not wanting him to be president, notice other indexes of political change:
Wisconsin has voted Democratic in six consecutive presidential elections. Although George W. Bush lost there by just 0.2 and 0.4 percentages in 2000 and 2004, respectively, Obama won it by 13.9 points. If Romney wins Wisconsin, one reason will be native son Paul Ryan, but another will be the unsuccessful attempt by government employees' unions to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. His counterattack created a durable political infrastructure.
Pennsylvania, which has supported five consecutive Democratic candidates, has the fourth-highest percentage of its population over 65 (behind Florida, West Virginia and Maine). If Romney wins Pennsylvania, or even comes close (in 2008, Obama won by 10.3 points), this will indicate seniors' skepticism about Democrats' contention that Republicans offer the elderly only wheelchairs, and only for the purpose of rolling grandmothers off cliffs.
Without spending a dime, Democratic presidential candidates win 104 electoral votes from the first (California), third (New York) and fifth (Illinois) most populous states. Tuesday's Texas voting might suggest that, perhaps eight years hence, Hispanic voters could turn the second-most populous state purple, en route to blue.
Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to combat California's fiscal implosion caused by public employees' unions is — surprise! — to raise taxes. Proposition 30 would increase sales and income taxes. If voters reject this, and pass Proposition 32 to limit unions' powers to fund political activities by siphoning money from workers' paychecks, Californians will have a glimmer of hope for regime change. Meanwhile, if Michiganders pass Proposal 2, they will put their state on California's downward trajectory. This union-backed measure would buttress unions' strength by making collective bargaining by public employees a constitutional right, and by making right-to-work laws unconstitutional.
Maryland is one of several states voting on measures pertaining to same-sex marriage. Maryland's would block the law passed by the Legislature to legalize such marriage. If the measure to block it fails, this will be particularly interesting because Maryland has the highest percentage of African-Americans (31 percent) of any state outside the Deep South, and social conservatism disposes many African-Americans against redefining marriage. If Maryland and other states endorse gay marriage in popular votes, this will call into question the necessity, and hence the wisdom, of a litigation strategy rather than a democratic persuasion strategy for advancing gay rights. The abortion debate became embittered when the Supreme Court's judicial fiat with Roe v. Wade (1973) truncated democratic deliberations that in the previous five years had liberalized abortion laws in 16 states with 41 percent of the nation's population.
Prohibition watch: Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which are among the 17 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, are voting on legalization for recreational use.
Finally, when Maine used to elect members of Congress in September, the saying was, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." Then in 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt beat Alf Landon in 46 of 48 states, the joke was, "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont." Tuesday evening the saying could be "As Maine's Second Congressional District goes, so goes the presidency." Forty-eight states allocate all their electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Nebraska and Maine, however, award two votes to the statewide winner, but one to whomever carries each congressional district. Obama will win Maine's popular vote, but Romney might win the Second District. Conceivably, one electoral vote could be the difference between 270-268 and 269-269 with the House of Representatives picking the president.
So, there. Enjoy Tuesday evening, after voting with Woody Allen's wisdom in mind: "One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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