The none's story


THERE ARE many riveting things about traveling around this great nation of ours on the cusp of a major election. Not the least of them is the ability to see political advertising designed chiefly to appeal to the stupid and mean-spirited in state after state, interchangeable and unimaginative as the decor of the hotel rooms.

But it is also possible to hold your finger to the wind and discern the prevailing ethos. And this year, in many places, that ethos has clearly been None of the Above.

None of the Above is so seductive for Americans because there is no way to pursue it politically, no mechanism by which we can dissolve the government and start again from scratch. In our democratic system, there is no way to elect a None without winding up with Someone. If that sounds a little like "Alice in Wonderland" -- well, haven't these midterm elections actually been a delightful mixture of the Mad Hatter's tea party, in which everyone moves constantly but no one really goes anywhere, and the Red Queen's croquet match, with its clarion cries of "Off with their heads!"

In fact the inevitable parabola of the None of the Above phenomenon is most easily understood by taking a fond backward look at that most "Through the Looking Glass" of national characters, H. Ross Perot. Ross Perot came out of nowhere in 1992 with a throw-the-bums-out zest. While the press and other politicos largely ignored him, the feisty guy from Texas picked up a large following by being the un-candidate.

But elections play out over time, and over time those down-home Peroticisms began to seem as predictable as smoothie political rhetoric. No matter how many charts the man hauled out, it became clear that no one could truly get rid of the deficit without even breakin' a sweat.

Then he crashed and burned: in the race, out of the race, in the race again. Weird conspiracy stories. Accusations that the Bush campaign had tried to ruin his daughter's wedding. "How do you screw up a Texas wedding?" wrote James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton's campaign. "Show up sober in a sedan? Leave with the woman you came with?" By the time the election neared its final week, Ross Perot's biggest success was as a Halloween costume. Under scrutiny, there was simply less than met the eye.

Sometimes, early on, less can be more. No one was exactly sure what the California Senate candidate Michael Huffington stood for, no one could put a finger on the political profile of Mitt Romney, no one could truly get a handle on George Pataki. What counted was not who they were but who they were not: the un-Dianne, the un-Ted, the un-Mario. A Massachusetts pollster, Gerry Chervinsky, said not long ago, "Romney to this day is defining himself as not Ted Kennedy."

There is a great deal of anger against what are called "career politicians," which is a strange thing; after all, no one ever complains about using a career dentist. But as the Ross Perot time line indicates, at some point cipher must give way to substance, and voters begin to turn toward the candidate who has actually done something: say, sponsored legislation or balanced a state budget. And the un-candidates begin to come undone.

A strong Republican might have blown Mr. Cuomo out of the water this time around. But a strong Republican was not at all what Sen. Al D'Amato wanted when he was playing kingmaker. So, polls suggest, voters are beginning to turn away from Mr. Pataki because there is no there there.

Michael Huffington's big blowup was last week's announcement that his children's nanny was an illegal alien, and his decision to blame same on his wife, a woman who has channeled him in interviews and appearances throughout his little-man-who-wasn't-there race. But he was flagging in the polls before, when more and more voters began to realize they had no idea, save rich and Republican, of who Mr. Huffington was -- because maybe, at base, he's nothing at all.

And there's the rub: Nothing at all is not the same as None of the Above, particularly when you begin to imagine it in Washington. It's not uncommon for Americans to become so disgusted by politics that they want to start from scratch. But ultimately they're forced to choose among real people; scratch doesn't make much of a senator. And when a person needs constituent services, Some of the Above is better than the alternative.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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