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Bidness as Unusual

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by Paul Flemming

We return you now to your regularly scheduled commercials.

With the election season over, the broadcast airwaves are no longer dominated by grainy video of politicians with ominous voice-overs concerning the diabolical intentions of the sponsoring candidate's opponent. The spaces between programming will now once again ply us to buy Ginsu knives and new, improved toothpaste.

That may be the only noticeable change in the wake of general elections Nov. 3.

In southwest Missouri, the status quo was largely preserved. An incumbent was unseated in Greene County's prosecutor's office and a short-term nominee lost a judgeship, but for the most part, voters returned the folks who were already there.

Democrats in the statehouse faced stiff challenges for seats Republicans targeted as winnable. They survived in this GOP-dominated area. Federal posts, both statewide and in this district, followed form and Republican incumbents stayed put.

But nationally, the election results provide fodder for a cold winter's worth of hot-stove league debate.

The last time a sitting president's party didn't lose seats in the House during an off-year election was in 1934. And FDR wasn't facing impeachment proceedings and 24-hour cable channels devoted to discussion of his moral, legal and political failings.

This year the Democratic Party the party of the sitting president had a net gain of five seats in the House of Representatives and held steady in the Senate.

Predictions earlier in the year were for Republican gains of up to 30 House seats. Some Democrats spurned Clinton in their campaigns and fund-raising efforts lest they be tainted with the scarlet L, for lying scoundrel.

Then a funny thing happened. We actually held the election.

As someone who fills this page with what passes for my opinion, and who appears elsewhere spouting whatever thoughts pass unedited from my brain to my mouth, this is interesting stuff, indeed.

Pundits can say what they want. Politicians can predict and project to their hearts' desire. Polls can be taken and their results disseminated willy nilly. It's the votes that count.

And what do the votes cast Nov. 3 mean?

Nothing.

The results are not devoid of meaning, they reflect the electorate's wishes for zero action by government. The less politicians do, the happier we are.

When the 1994 congressional elections returned majority power to Republicans after nearly 50 years of Democratic hegemony, voters said they wished to split power. A president and Congress of the same party would too easily be able to take action. An executive and legislature at partisan odds would be locked in ideological battle and accomplish little.

This is what happened. The number of significant pieces of legislation to come out of Washington in the last four years even going back six years to Clinton's election has been paltry.

The policy landscape of the '90s is more littered with the skeletons of abandoned initiatives than it is with established programs. Health care reform? Down the drain. The bulk of the Republicans' Contract with America? Largely unfulfilled.

Yes, Congress passed a balanced budget deal in 1997 and the federal government went into surplus this year. But it can certainly be argued that the surplus has little or nothing to do with legislation; credit those of us out here in the private sector making a lot of money. And, anyway, when the surplus showed up, legislators of every stripe were quick to stomp all over the vaunted budget deal to spend a chunk of that surplus.

But not all of it. The bulk of the surplus has not been assigned. Some want to apply it to Social Security. Some want to cut taxes. Some want to spend it all on new government programs. But Washington leaders were unable to decide precisely what to do, so they did nothing.

That's an alternative voters like.

Winning politicians are quick to declare a mandate in the wake of elections. This is a mistake. The results of this last election are not necessarily a repudiation of impeachment proceedings. The Democratic victories are not necessarily a stunning endorsement of that party's agenda.

I believe the results reflect an electorate continuing to search for an equilibrium of power that will result in absolutely nothing happening in Washington and other power centers. Keep a Democrat in the White House for now. Narrow the majority of Republicans in the House. And elect a professional wrestler to the governorship of Minnesota there's a recipe for absolutely nothing of note getting done in Minneapolis.

Gridlock won the true mandate Nov. 3.

Thomas Jefferson almost had it right. Government that bickers more, governs best.

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