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In Politics and Life, It’s Always in the Eye of the Beholder

The e-mails started arriving even before I had finished my presentation at American University last month.

People on the left were outraged that I dismissed what I generally believe are wacko allegations of election fraud in Ohio, while those on the right seemed most irate that I called the results in November a “status-quo election,” apparently believing that that characterization minimized the importance of the results. [IMGCAP(1)]

I thought of these reactions when I listened recently to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at an on-the-record breakfast with journalists. Kennedy, who has served in the Senate for 42 years and has participated in or observed dozens of elections, asserted that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats on the major issues of the day.

Elections should, at least to some extent, answer questions about the direction of the country and the mood of the public. But whether it’s the deep partisan divisions in the country, the difficulty people have in admitting defeat or the unwillingness of some to acknowledge that the rest of the country doesn’t see things exactly as they do, I encounter a lot of people who can’t distinguish between what they want to happen and what has happened.

In November, only six House incumbents were defeated by challengers (three, if you exclude Texas, where redistricting was a wild card). That’s a status-quo result.

At the presidential level, few counties changed color between 2000 and 2004. And only three states (Iowa, New Mexico and New Hampshire) changed their electoral vote over four years. That’s a status-quo result.

In the Senate, the Republicans gained four seats — but primarily because the GOP won open seats in Republican and conservative states. In other words, they won in places they should have won. That’s a status-quo result, although the increase from 51 to 55 GOP Senators could have significant repercussions over the next couple of years.

Saying that the 2004 election was a “status-quo” election means that voters were generally content with their elected officials — or at least that they weren’t sufficiently dissatisfied with the direction of the country or enthralled with the alternatives that they were given.

But that wasn’t good enough for all of those conservative Republicans who ranted and raved that I was a liberal Democratic stooge who was out to explain away the GOP victory. All they wanted to hear was that a conservative surge had washed across the country.

But it isn’t only “real people” who see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear.

In his assessment of the elections and his criticisms of President Bush’s performance in office, Kennedy said that he didn’t hear much about Social Security during the presidential contest. What election was he listening to?

Massachusetts’ senior Senator also talked about what he heard from people as he traveled around the country during the campaign. Apparently, people were worried about the economy, wanted more health care coverage, were fearful of GOP plans to alter Social Security and were dissatisfied with the Bush administration’s policies involving Iraq.

Kennedy didn’t seem to place a lot of emphasis on the fact that most of the people who attended John Kerry campaign events or rallies for Democratic House and Senate candidates were Democrats, whose views were in sync with his.

But the tendency for people to see what they want isn’t the only reason for the increased political bitterness and division in this country. Partisanship and political division reflects a broader trend in the country.

On Monday, during one of the seeming countless editions of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” the program put up a graphic that asked, “Peyton Manning: Record-breaking QB or Playoff Loser?”

Record-breaker or loser? Are those the only two choices? And are they mutually exclusive?

Manning is a lot of things. He broke the record for most touchdown passes in a season this year (49) and earned a stunningly impressive quarterback rating of 121.1. He’s a terrific quarterback, one of the top ones in the NFL. But he also threw 10 interceptions and committed five fumbles.

Yes, Manning has never appeared in or won a Super Bowl. But so what? He helped guide his team deep into the playoffs this year, and the past two years his Indianapolis Colts have lost to the New England Patriots, a very good team (and the 2004 Super Bowl winner).

In its “record-breaker versus loser” choice, ESPN, like many of the political partisans, presented only extremes. Either Peyton Manning is great or he’s a bum, either he is a legend or a failure. That’s the sports counterpart of the liberal or conservative choice. And it’s a phony choice.

Quarterbacks — like politicians or political parties — aren’t always either great or terrible, right or wrong. They do some things better than others, and their performances can vary from day to day. Obviously, that’s too often lost in sports, as well as in the world of politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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