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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Our subtleties explained

By Calvin Trillin

TIME magazine

Finding myself in London on Nov. 4, I agreed to clear up any questions my English friend Nigel happened to have about how to interpret the American midterm elections. It's obviously beneficial to spread understanding of the American political system abroad, and I've never minded analyzing elections after the results are in. As the political commentators discovered once again this year, it's analysis done before the election that's very likely to make you look foolish.

"Let me see if I understand this," Nigel said. "The fact that the voters said in the exit polls that they didn't consider the election a referendum on whether or not Clinton should be thrown out of office has been taken as proof that the election was a referendum on whether or not Clinton should be thrown out of office?"

"Absolutely," I said. "I think you're beginning to catch on, Nigel. If you keep this up, someday I might try filling you in on the structure of the Iowa caucus system."

"So the fact that the election was seen as a victory for the Democrats means that Clinton will remain President because only the Republicans wanted him out?"

"Well, not exactly," I said. "The Republicans didn't actually want him out, because they don't want to face Albert Gore as an incumbent President in 2000. They wanted to go through the process of getting him out but then leave him in. The people who wanted him out were the Democrats, but they didn't want to go through the process of getting him out. What they actually wanted to do was wish him away. But, as I've explained to you before, Nigel, the United States, unlike the United Kingdom, has a written Constitution, and even people who do not consider themselves strict constructionists agree that there is no provision in the Constitution for wishing a President away. It's apparently one of the few contingencies that the drafters never considered."

Nigel was still having some difficulty understanding how the Democrats are considered to have won the election by ending up with a dozen fewer House seats than the Republicans--something that would not be true in the parliamentary system.

"As I've tried to tell you before," I said, "This is not the parliamentary system. In our system the winning party is the party that does better than anticipated, or, to put it another way, the party that causes the most embarrassment to commentators who insist on covering political campaigns by predicting results that everyone's going to know on election night anyway."

I reminded him that in American politics the party of a President almost always loses rather than gains seats in a midterm election. "It's axiomatic," I said.

But why?" Nigel asked. "Why, exactly, does the President's party normally lose seats in a midterm election?"

There was a long pause. "I'd rather not say," I finally replied. You can't give the entire system away to these foreigners. I told Nigel we might get to that question someday, once I was satisfied that he understood the structure of the Iowa caucus system.


Cover Date: November 16, 1998

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