If you believe that the toothless report issued last week by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform will have even the slightest impact on future elections, then you probably also believed commission cochairman Jimmy Carter's abrupt about-face on his scathing assessment of President Bush.
"I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done," Carter said of Bush 11 days before arriving at the White House for the Rose Garden unveiling of the report. He went on to slam the president's positions on missile defense, foreign policy and the environment.
But just three days before the ceremony -- apparently starry-eyed over the prospect of a grinning photo op with the object of his almost complete disappointment -- Carter issued a statement spinning his Bush-bashing as a "transient thing where a mistake was made by me and the press in distorting what was said." Makes sense to me. As a member of the press, I know how easy it is to distort a statement as ambiguous and open to interpretation as "I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done." Especially seeing how, according to Carter, "all the quotes in there were accurate." Perhaps they were just incomplete. Maybe what he had really said was: "I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done ... with the drapes on the second floor."
"The problem," explained Carter, "was that they just selected a few of the negative things that I said about President Bush, and didn't put in the positive." You know, glowing comments like: "Sure he's trashing the environment, relaunching the nuclear arms race, screwing up the Middle East and kowtowing to right-wingers like Cheney and Rumsfeld -- but, golly, he gives out all those cute nicknames and seems like an awful decent fellow."
Which he does. I mean, you really do have to give W. credit. He took ol' Mr. Peanut's barbs like a gentleman -- one who doesn't bother to read the papers. According to reports, when the two met in the Oval Office before the Rose Garden ceremony, Carter launched into an apologetic explanation. To which Bush replied: "Oh, hush. Don't worry about it, man ... I know what the press can do." Cool, man. And very understanding. Compassionate even. Maybe the two of them should consider starting a support group: PVA (Press Victims Anonymous). They could invite Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman, Robert Blake and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to join.
In fact, what Carter and his commission cohorts ought to apologize for is the election reform report itself, which has been grandly titled "To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process." The problem is not with the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations, which include worthy ideas such as setting uniform ballot-counting standards, upgrading voting equipment, making Election Day a national holiday and restoring voting rights to felons who've served their time. The trouble lies in the panel's stance that it's enough for Congress to merely encourage states to adopt reform measures, as opposed to mandating the changes.
Since when do we make something as vital to our democracy as the protection of our constitutional right to vote a suggestion? A new study by MIT and Cal Tech found that as many as 6 million Americans were disenfranchised on Election Day 2000 -- yet the commission wants to leave it to individual states to decide whether, perhaps, they should do something about it?
Why don't we have Carter and Bush convene a commission to rethink the Ten Commandments: "Thou might want to consider not killing." Or: "Perhaps it would be a good idea not to covet thy neighbor's wife ... on the other hand, if you really feel strongly about it, do whatever you think is best."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has a different plan. Along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., he has coauthored the Equal Protection Voting Rights Act, which would require states to meet uniform federal standards for voting, while allocating $3.5 billion to help them ensure that every vote counts on Election Day.
Even the Appleseed Foundation, an organization that seeks to bring about social change through grass-roots community action, has produced a report on electoral reform that unambiguously declares: "Without a commitment of federal funds and a requirement of national standards, many states will not enact fundamental, comprehensive electoral reform."
"The disenfranchisement of 6 million Americans," Dodd told me, "is unconscionable. And the only way to guarantee real reform is to mandate it. The Supreme Court didn't make school desegregation optional in 1954. Congress didn't make the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act optional in 1964 and 1965. I have been going around trying to convince my Republican colleagues that this is not about embarrassing Bush. This is not about the last election; it's about a system that has been cratering over a long time."
The Election Reform Commission report rightly calls Election 2000 "a political ordeal unlike any in living memory." It was an ordeal that has cast a shadow across America's entire electoral system. It's too bad Carter and company didn't see fit to advocate a bite equal to their bark.