BOSTON - It doesn't take a pollster or a clairvoyant to predict the winner of this election. We all know who it is. Allow me to introduce the next president of the United States: The Lesser Of Two Evils (LOTE).
As of Wednesday, one of two men will have proved to be the bigger loser and this desultory, dumb, mean-spirited election will have come to its downbeat resolution. President-elect LOTE will begin scrambling to proclaim a mandate.The worst news is that so many Americans arrived at Election Day still declaring that they didn't know enough about either man to feel comfortable choosing. They didn't really know what he stands for. They didn't really know what he'll do in the White House.
How did that happen in such a lengthy campaign? How did we learn so little in so much time? Blame the candidates for sure, and the handlers if you prefer-the pollsters, speechwriters and advertisers. Okay, bash the media if it makes you feel better.
But some of us ought to save at least one whack for self-flagellation. There are 35 million Americans-come on, we know who we are - who checked off the little box on our IRS returns. We are the folk who gave a dollar a year to the Federal Election Commission.
At the risk of echoing Ronald Reagan, this is our campaign, we paid for it. To the tune of $54 million. And we forgot to make sure we'd get our money's worth.
The theory behind the little checkoff was a good-government notion that if the candidates got their money from a lot of little donors they wouldn't be beholden to the big donors. The loopholes in that theory are a story for another day. But it turns out that the candidates didn't feel beholden - to us.
No, I'm not asking for a rebate. I've wasted more money on a lousy lunch. Call me a sucker, but I'll check off the box next April.
But I'm beginning to think it's time to attach some strings to that box on our tax return. Anybody who gets public money should behave in the public interest.
Let me try some strings on for size.
String One: Debates. I mean real debates where candidates face each other and pick holes in their opponent's arguments. Where the answers go on for more than two minutes and the rebuttals for more than one. Where a buzzer goes off everytime a candidate avoids the question. Where a referee is there only to see that the guys don't slug each other. I mean six debates.
String Two: A Take-Home Exam. Want to know how the candidate would work with his staff, who he'd pick, how he'd think? Hand out a hypothetical crisis, let him huddle for 24 hours with his experts and emerge with an answer. Grade it.
String Three: One Speech. To show that he can think for himself, every candidate should be expected to write down his own thoughts in an isolation booth and immediately deliver one speech on the subject of our choosing. Check for meaningless slogans or phrases lifted from Presidents past.
String Four: Truth in Advertising. A sizable chunk of our $54 million has gone to television stations in the form of ads designed to manipulate us. Sometimes even to deceive us.
If we are to pay for our own manipulation, these should pass some minimal standard of factual accuracy. On a par with, say, aspirin manufacturers.
These are not the only or best strings to attach to our purse. I can think of any number of others. Compulsory press conferences, for example, or a requirement that presidential candidates appear on television without benefit of flags at least two days a week. Instead of just paying for the balloons, we should be able to prick them.
I am more than half-serious about my string collection. We have become so passive as citizens. Faced with the dumbing down of the political process, all we have done is turn off. Maybe the only hope is in our role as consumers.
It's harder and harder to get a public accounting of our campaigns. It's about time to get a cost accounting.