The morning isn’t going well. When Norma woke up feeling sad, I said the wrong thing. I often say the wrong thing when my wife is sad. I forget that what she wants then is compassion, not my attempt to put things in perspective.

Though my words don’t seem to be doing any good, I keep talking anyway, like a kid hitting the flippers on a pinball machine even after the tilt light has come on. Norma looks at me, tells me my words aren’t helping. Clumsily, I try to put in perspective my need to put things in perspective — until Norma gives me that look again, and I shut up. I hug her, which is all she wanted to begin with, but I know some damage has been done.

I get dressed and drive to the polls, hoping to beat the crowds. By the time I get there, more than thirty people are already in line. Resigned to a long wait, I take my place in a familiar corridor. This is the middle school my daughter once attended. Here, she was taught about the uniqueness and enduring strength of the American political system. Here, she was taught never to take for granted the right to vote in a free election.

Call me naive, but neither do I. I try to remember John Wesley’s injunction to “act as if the whole election depended on your single vote.” I don’t take democracy for granted, just as I try not to take for granted the house that shelters me, the pen that writes these words — everything familiar and easily ignored, until a tree falls on the roof, or the ink runs dry.

But with Bill Clinton running this year as a Republican and Bob Dole running from himself (even referring to himself in the third person, like a man holding a suspicious object at arm’s length), I don’t feel as if I’m being offered much of a choice. Some of Ross Perot’s ideas are intriguing, but the man himself is hard to take seriously, except as a reminder of how elastic our definitions of mental health have become: ordinary people with delusions of grandeur are carted off to the nut house, while a bossy little megalomaniac with a billion dollars under the mattress runs for the White House. Then there’s Ralph Nader, the only one of all the fringe candidates who appeals to me; in fact, there’s hardly anyone in public life I admire more. Yet voting for Nader doesn’t seem practical, and I’m a practical man.

I study the faces around me, wondering how others are going to vote — as if appearances were less deceiving than a politician’s stump speech. Ruefully, I recall the speech I gave Norma this morning. How easy it is to be wise about another person’s suffering, I think. It’s the easiest thing in the world — like imagining you know what’s best for your fellow citizens, all 250 million of them.

Four years ago, when Bill Clinton declared that he knew what was best for the country, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was obviously an opportunist, but with an idealistic streak; it was interesting to watch the devil and the angel in him struggle for the upper hand. A man of apparently enormous appetites — for food, for sex, for the clear light of ideas and for the dim bulb at the end of the hall, that small pool of light just big enough to make a deal — he seemed nonetheless a basically decent soul: intelligent, a good listener, someone who cared about black people as well as white people, women (count on it) as well as men. Clinton tried hard back then to woo progressives like me. He wanted us to think he was on our side; that we needed a resilient, savvy politician like him to push for social change.

Four years later, the military budget is still at Cold War levels, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, huge corporations enjoy lavish subsidies while inner cities fall apart. Four years later, to raise money for his reelection, Clinton regularly invites donors of at least twenty-five thousand dollars to dinner parties at the White House and chats alone over coffee with donors of at least a hundred thousand dollars. More generous supporters get to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

The president slips his hand up America’s skirt. Do we slap his hand? Isn’t he just being Bill? Yet I wonder about those who never get to whisper in the president’s ear between the broiled salmon and the chocolate mousse. For me, the defining moment — and the saddest moment — of Clinton’s first term in office was when he signed the welfare-reform bill. Since then, I’ve been brooding about whether to vote for him again.

The welfare bill ends the federal guarantee of assistance for the poor. In its place are block grants given to the states, which are to have almost total control over how the money is spent: states like Alabama, which recently reintroduced the chain gang. Regardless of where welfare recipients live, they will have to find jobs within two years, or else lose their benefits. This includes those too emotionally or physically disabled to find work. This includes single mothers who never finished high school, who can’t afford decent child care, who live in rural areas where there’s no public transportation.

Clinton knew that signing the bill went against his own previous statements and those of his cabinet. He signed the bill anyway. Clinton knew that the federal government was the last line of defense for millions of poor people against the predatory forces of the free market. He signed the bill anyway. Clinton understood that there could be no meaningful welfare reform without a guarantee of decent jobs. He signed the bill anyway. Clinton knew that, in a country where one out of five children live in poverty, cutting food stamps and turning welfare over to the states was like punching a kid in the belly and stealing his lunch box. He signed the bill anyway.

Count your blessings, I’m told: at least he’s a moderate Republican.

Critics of welfare argue that the system has been abused. But what isn’t abused in this country, where children watch thirty hours of television a week; where one-third of us are overweight; where more than four hundred thousand people die every year from smoking cigarettes? How many Americans cheat on their taxes, drive faster than the speed limit, break the law to get high? Why do we insist that poor people be more moral than everyone else? Sure, some welfare recipients could be more responsible about finding work. But what about the responsibility of corporate CEOs to bring back some of the millions of jobs they’ve exported to Third World countries? What about the responsibility of politicians to do something about poverty, instead of vilifying some pregnant teenager who never got a break in life, who wore all the right makeup but fucked the wrong guy, on the wrong night. In the wrong country.

If a “reform” bill were going to affect millions of wealthy Americans — say, by mandating one hour a month of community service for everyone earning more than a hundred thousand dollars a year — would it have any chance of being passed? How naive such a question is, as naive as suggesting that all of us are equal; that an executive earning $5 million a year is no more important than a clerk earning $5 an hour; that rewriting the tax code to benefit the poor and the middle class is one way our supposedly God-fearing leaders could acknowledge the divinity in each of us.

As the line inches past a large aquarium, I peer at the rainbow-colored fish inside. Occasionally, one of them wriggles up to the glass to peer back at me. I don’t remember the aquarium being here when my daughter was a student. Maybe it’s new, or maybe they just bring it out when there’s an election, to remind us the fish are free to swim in circles.

Perhaps I’d be less critical of the president if I, too, had the chance to have a cup of coffee with him. By all accounts, he’s a persuasive man. Maybe he’d put things in perspective, remind me that there’s more at stake in this election than welfare; that he supports a woman’s right to an abortion; that he stood up to the gun lobby, the tobacco lobby. Maybe he’d try to convince me that refusing to vote for him would be compounding one mistake with another; that, in his second term, he’ll fight for what he really believes.

I shake my head, tell him I can’t imagine any of his Democratic predecessors signing the welfare bill. He reminds me that Bob Dole would push for even sterner measures. Less than 6 per cent of the federal budget goes toward food stamps and welfare, but Dole would probably cut that still further. A victory for Dole would be a victory for Newt Gingrich. For the Christian Coalition.

I agree, I don’t want Bob Dole in the White House.

Clinton pours me another cup of coffee. Refusing to vote for him again, the president suggests, would be indulging my anger in the worst way, like storming out in the middle of an argument and slamming the door behind me. Surely, I’m not someone who would ignore small but tangible progress. Cream? Sugar? Besides, he asks, don’t I judge him a bit harshly? Aren’t the qualities I condemn in him — the disconcerting need to placate everyone, the insatiable hunger to be liked — the same qualities I condemn in myself? Let’s face it, he says, we’re all politicians when the votes are being counted. Clinton leans closer. And those runaway appetites that can get a man into trouble . . . He doesn’t have to finish the sentence. Haven’t I lied to people I’ve loved? Didn’t I betray my ex-wife? True, I haven’t sold out welfare mothers, but who knows what deals I’d make, given the opportunity? Do I, as Gandhi taught, think of the poorest person in the world every time I take out my wallet — every time I buy another shirt, or another book I’ll never get around to reading?

The line is moving slowly — like this country, I think. I wonder if this is the way democracy has to move: no giant steps, and don’t forget to say, “May I?” Perhaps my expectations are impossibly high, my thinking still mired in the hopelessly quixotic politics of the sixties. Where I see dragons, maybe Clinton sees nothing but windmills. Maybe he knows better than I which way the wind is blowing.

But my politics were shaped by the sixties. And, as historian Todd Gitlin observes, no matter what we say about the failures of that era, “America’s political and cultural space would probably not have opened up as much as it did” without such “divine delirium.”

Today, instead of divine delirium, we get the Democrats and Republicans exhorting us with thirty-second ads. Like lovers faking orgasms, they’re trying too hard to convince us they care. Clinton clings to the middle of the road and calls it “the vital center,” but being truly centered means living with eyes open and, if the moment requires it, taking real risks. Does Clinton take risks in pursuit of his ideals? Does he admit how much goes wrong, no matter how hard we try? Does he admit we’re not really trying? Being truly centered means acknowledging the intelligence, humor, and beauty in each of us, and sacrificing no one on the altar of political expediency.

Clinton represents the best in us, and the worst: he’s smart, but too smart for his own good; he’s a visionary, but can’t tell right from wrong. True, he has an impressive grasp of complex issues, an amazing ability to sense the mood of the public, a capacity to learn and grow from his mistakes. True, he’s persuasive — but, finally, not persuasive enough. Whether we acknowledge it or not, a president is a spiritual leader. This has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with the fact that our lives are interconnected, and that anyone who presumes to truly lead us must appreciate this interconnectedness, without trying to exploit it, without turning it into a phony slogan about “unity.”

Then again, perhaps we get the politicians we deserve. Fortunate enough to have food on the table, a roof over our head, an extra dollar or two, we’re tempted to settle into a marriage of convenience: justice keeps to its side of the bed; we keep to ours. Maybe we still believe in radical change, but not with the same passionate intensity we once did. Oh, we recycle. We donate to the right causes. But how much sleep do we lose over the hungry kid across town in an unheated apartment? Last week, as I shopped for a used car, didn’t I shy away from older, boxy-looking models, telling myself I deserved something newer, sportier? But what do I deserve when so many others go without bare necessities?

How tempting it is, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, for people who think themselves moral to tolerate an immoral society.

If a vote for either Clinton or Dole is a vote against those Americans most in need — indeed, a vote against the very idea that we all need each other — then what am I to do? Yesterday, a friend insisted that a protest vote for Nader would be throwing away my vote. But is voting for what I believe throwing away my vote? Are we throwing away our lives if we say no to the way others live, and try to make a different life?

As I said, I’m a practical man. I know that, for months, Clinton has been running well ahead of Dole. But the latest Reuters poll shows his lead down to a mere 4 percent. In North Carolina, where I live, the race is especially close. I wonder whether a handful of votes might make a difference. I wonder whether my vote might make a difference. Yet if I rely on the polls as a basis for voting, aren’t I being as calculatingly political as the president? Aren’t I deciding that, because Clinton is ahead, I can afford to vote my conscience, but if the race were closer, I couldn’t?

No matter how I do the math, I come up with the same conclusion: my vote is totally meaningless and tremendously important, an exercise in futility and one of the crowning moments of democracy. I wish I could invite Jesus into the voting booth with me, and Buddha, and my dead father, the original bleeding-heart liberal Democrat. Maybe they’d remind me that, no matter who wins, tomorrow morning I’ll wake up in the same house, in the same neighborhood, the same middle-aged white man, uncertain about so many things, but certain of this: I won’t be here forever; none of us will. So what’s my responsibility during this short life? To acquiesce to a view of the world Bill Clinton insists is practical?

I know that to suggest cutting the defense budget in half isn’t practical. (How practical is spending more than $500 million a day to “protect” us in the absence of a credible enemy?) To suggest abolishing prisons as we know them is impractical. (How practical is our miserly attitude toward social services, which turns the ghettos into training grounds for desperation and self-hate?) To suggest a more equitable tax on corporations and the wealthy: impractical. (How practical is it for CEOs to earn, on average, 225 times as much as those who work for them?)

I know it’s not enough to have questions. Politicians are the ones who have answers, even if they’re wrong. But if I turn politics over to the politicians, am I being practical? What blessings am I securing for future generations by pretending Bill Clinton is the best we can do? When maintaining corporate profits is considered more important than feeding hungry children, does it matter whether Clinton’s alliance with big business is uneasy? Will another vote for Clinton bring us any closer to decent health care for everyone? Will it mean more affordable housing? Will it slow the manic growth we’ve come to equate with progress? Every four years, the press is full of patriotic self-congratulation about our orderly transfer of power. We cluck our tongues over events like the massacre at Tiananmen Square, proud that we don’t see American tanks on the streets of American cities. But those in power don’t need to send tanks into the streets as long as they can control the way we think; as long as we’re willing hostages of the party bosses and the corporate seduction artists; as long as we’re adept at controlling ourselves.

As I move toward the front of the line, I take one last look at the iridescent fish in their narrow prison. Maybe they don’t know it’s a prison. Maybe they think they’re somewhere in the tropics, in the clear blue waters of the Caribbean, and I’m just a dark cloud.

I know that a vote for Nader won’t be taken seriously in Washington unless millions of others vote for him, too — and that’s not likely, given his lackluster campaign. Clearly, the man has no stomach for electoral politics. Yet, for thirty years, he’s been one of my heroes, a selfless crusader for ordinary citizens against the excesses of corporate power. He understands that democracy isn’t just a rallying cry at election time but a radical experiment in self-rule; that you can’t have real democracy when there’s such an enormous concentration of power and wealth in so few hands; that while we’re cutting back on food stamps for the poor, we’re dishing out billions each year in food stamps for the rich, in bailouts and giveaways to giant corporations.

No, a solitary vote for Nader isn’t likely to start a revolution. But that moment in the voting booth is no ordinary moment. Can I use it to celebrate the power of resistance? Can I remind Bill Clinton there’s more than one kind of angry white male? Who knows what effect even a handful of protest votes might have? Truth is a living force, more resilient and stubborn than any politician — and history is full of surprises. No one predicted the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement. “Of course the election coverage is totally depressing,” historian Howard Zinn said recently, “because it presents the Democratic and Republican parties to us as if that is where all power lies. . . . As if there aren’t 50 million people who don’t vote. As if there aren’t huge numbers who vote unenthusiastically. As if there isn’t this enormous reservoir of feeling about issues that runs counter to the platforms of the major parties. Although that vast sense of betrayal out there has not yet been mobilized, it possibly can be.”

Perhaps, over coffee, Bill Clinton would convince me he understands that sense of betrayal. But I suspect he’d just talk and talk while I got sadder and sadder — like my wife this morning, overwhelmed by my beautiful, sincere, irrelevant words. It’s funny: even now, I want to believe in Clinton. I want to believe in big promises, and gradual progress, and the benevolence of powerful men and women whose chauffeurs wait at the curb. But here, at the end of the twentieth century, I can’t; the century takes its toll. Clinton wants to lead us to a brighter tomorrow, but I don’t want to hear any more about that bridge to the twenty-first century. I remember, instead, the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.”

For the five seconds it takes to write in Ralph Nader’s name on the ballot, I take my stand. Sure, it’s not so much a vote for Nader as a vote against Clinton. But, in truth, it’s less a vote against Clinton than against how mean-spirited America has become. But it’s not a vote against America. I’m too much the patriot for that. Not the kind who marches down Main Street on the Fourth of July, waving the flag: after all, my politics were shaped by the sixties. But if the band is playing, I just might dance: body swaying, body singing yes to freedom, yes to justice — oh, sweet American delirium! — yes to democracy’s harsh demands. But when I have to, when democracy itself demands it, I say no.