Saturday, January 20, 2007

Presidential Campaigns Are Too Long

Today, Hillary Clinton and Sam Brownback announced that they were forming "exploratory committees" to look at seeking their parties' presidential nominations in 2008.

Do you know what I think? I think presidential campaigns are too long.

Then-Senator John Kennedy first met with his advisors to map out his 1960 quest for the presidency at Hyannisport on October 28, 1959. He didn't announce his candidacy until shortly before the New Hampshire primary the next year.

Of course, in days gone by, candidates got their political ducks in a row way before public campaigning or even campaign strategizing began. Andrew Jackson, for example, went to work on his successful 1828 campaign for President immediately after losing to John Quincy Adams in the disputed contest of 1824. But all of that was subterranean work, the stuff of political operatives, smoke-filled rooms, and conversations over bourbon and brandy.

Ever since the nominating processes of the two parties were opened up to the ordinary voter, presidential campaigns have become multi-year affairs.

In 1969, because so many Democrats were angry that Hubert Humphrey was nominated by their party the previous year, even though the then-Vice President never entered a single primary, the Democratic National Committee appointed a commission under the leadership of Senator George McGovern to ensure that voters saw their preferred candidates nominated.

In 1968, there were seven states with presidential primaries, most of them completely or partly non-binding. The McGovern Commission changed that in the Democratic Party. Eventually, the Republicans would follow suit.

Today, it seems, we have more primary or caucus states than there are states in the whole Union. But that doesn't mean that every state is important.

In the old days, candidates might hope to pick up a win in Wisconsin or West Virginia even if they'd already lost in New Hampshire, and so, have a shot at showing the politicos who really decided who was nominated that they were "electable." They might demonstrate strengths in different regions of the country, say in Oregon or California, after losing early on.

Now though, things are pretty much over by the time the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries have been held, at the very beginning of the process. Campaign contributions for those who finish in second or below in those contests disappear, making it impossible for them to continue to compete nationwide in all those primaries and caucuses.

In 2004, John Kerry ensured his nomination by the Democrats by winning the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses. In 2000, George W. Bush fairly sealed the deal for the Republican nod by winning in South Carolina, the third contest of the campaign year.

The point: Anyone who wants to win the nomination of her or his party needs to build up a head of steam to win early. That means more than having an organizational infrastructure or piling up a campaign war chest, what's often called wholesale politics. It also puts a premium on retail politics: overt, public, go-for-it campaigning for the office.

In the current atmosphere, if a presidential candidate hasn't got an organization fairly well put together two years before the next Inauguration Day--which today is, by the way--they can kiss their prospects good-bye.

Those are the realities. But I don't like them. It seems to me that somewhere along the line, the people we elected to be Governors and Senators, Representatives and Mayors ought to do what we elected them to do, govern, and forego campaigning for President for awhile.

I'm a political junkie and I love the whole political enterprise. But the perpetual presidential campaign can paralyze the political decision-making process. Political leaders who might actually lead in Washington, in their state capitals, or elsewhere, are so busy jockeying for the chance to occupy the Oval Office in the future, that they fail to act today.

How do we put the toothpaste back in the tube? I don't know that we can. But something needs to be done. The perpetual presidential campaign isn't good for the country or our politics.

[Cross-posted at RedBlueChristian.com.]

[UPDATE:

Charlie comments:
The never-ending campaign of the modern primary system really favors the candidate with the best money-raising ability, not the one with the best ideas. So this long campaign season lets them build a huge war-chest, flood the early primary states with advertising, build name recognition and find favorable talking points... Meanwhile, the dark horse candidates can't get heard.
It's a money-driven system that we now have. In the days of the smoke-filled back rooms, cronyism and influence made candidates, so the dark horse had to know the right people to get a shot.

Both systems tend to lock the ordinary citizen out of the decision-making process. Both systems require the candidate to make deals behind the scenes that translate into influence and payback after the election.

I'm really just thinking out loud here, Mark. In the end, does a sin-corrupted system based on money get us to a worse place than one based on power? What would a third way, something that really empowers the ordinary voter, look like?
Pretty good "thinking out loud," don't you think?
I respond:
Good points and at the end, a very good question.
No system will be perfect. And no reform will ever fix things. Human beings, being human, will find ways to circumvent all reforms. That's why reform is a never-ending process.

The old system gave us Abraham Lincoln.

It also gave us Warren Harding.

At times, it yielded surprises. For example, Chester Alan Arthur, though not personally corrupt, had, throughout much of his public life countenanced corruption. As customs collector for the Port of New York, he oversaw the collection of 75% of all federal revenues and looked the other way when people scraped cream off the top...along with a lot of the milk. Yet, when he ascended to the presidency, he decided to push civil service reform, becoming one of the great reforming presidents. He also was a proto-conservationist, setting aside vast tracts of land as national forest nearly two decades before another New York Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, came to office.

I don't pine for the good old days. But the current system is a muddle. Ironically, for the reasons you cite, a system designed to open things up and make the process more democratic has resulted in more influence for the wealthy and the powerful and for people in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the early caucus and primary contests happen.

I have nothing against the folks in those states. But usually, by the time the presidential primary is held here in Ohio, for example, the identities of the nominees are foregone conclusions: the losers have packed their bags and the winners have moved onto raising money for the general election campaign.

Apparently, Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature are going to try to move the presidential primary in that state to February. That would have enormous significance. It would, as someone suggested, give liberal Democratic candidates a clearer shot at their party's nomination and also give moderate Republicans more of a chance in that party. It would also knock the losing candidates out more quickly...it takes a lot of money to run a campaign in California. And it would "California-ize" the campaign, with that state's issues take precedence in the national debate like it hasn't heretofore.

As to proposals I might have, I have a few random ideas:
  • 1. Make money less of a factor by imposing draconian limits on campaign spending and contribution levels. I mean severe limits.
  • 2. Require all broadcast media and cable outlets to provide a specified number of hours of access to the public. Candidates could use these hours in any ways they wished, including pooling their time and resources to produce debates involving two or more of the candidates.
  • 3. Do away with public financing of campaigns. With the limits I suggest, it isn't needed.
Under such rules, a premium would be placed on old-fashioned political organization and on candidates cultivating national reputations and acknowledged certification before running for President. But no system will be perfect or insusceptible to corruption.]
[UPDATE: Over at The Moderate Voice, where Joe Gandelman has generously linked to this post, commenters are speculating about why Jeb Bush isn't making a run for the presidency in 2008 or if he will in 2012. So far, they seem to feel that President Bush's tenure has damaged the Bush brand name. That may be. But, I write there:
I’m inclined to agree that Jeb Bush would have a difficult time overcoming apprehensions people might have about voting for another member of his family. At least, in 2008.

Here in Ohio, through petty corruptions that caused him to be the first governor ever convicted of crimes while in office and what’s perceived as general ineffectiveness, Bob Taft has, at least for the forseeable future, killed the Taft brand in this state. And that’s saying something: His great-grandfather was President and US Supreme Court Chief Justice; his grandfather the Republican leader in the US Senate who vied for the 1952 GOP nod for President; his father was US Senator; and miscellaneous cousins and uncles have served in other political positions. The Taft name has been ballot box magic in this state for generations. Not at this time, though. So, brand names can be killed off.

But a cautionary note or two…

First: When George H.W. Bush left office in January, 1993, he was an unpopular man. The left derided him for insensitivity to the economic condition of America’s middle class, as well as of the poor. The right saw him as a tax-raiser who welched on promises. Many commentators saw him as ineffectual.

The Clinton years, in the eyes of many, made the elder Bush’s presidency look better. George W. Bush was elected, in part, on a wave of nostalgia…for the days of a President who was voted out of office!

People’s opinions change.

Second: Whether we like to admit it or not, we Americans love royalty. We’re also lazy, tending to cast often misinformed votes for names we know. Names like Bush, Kennedy, Gore, Dailey (in Chicago), Brown (in California), Bayh (in Indiana), Romney, Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, Taft, and others have appeared over and over again on national, statewide, and local ballots in our nation’s history. (To which one can now add the name of Clinton.) People related to a successful politician has a leg up in gaining such success themselves.

Many of the heirs of these names may have been well-qualified for the offices they sought and won. But often, they’re able to tap into the contribution lists and contacts of their relatives to present themselves as solid, dependable choices for office. They’re the comfort food of electoral politics.

Jeb Bush may one day make a run for the presidency. He will argue, rightly, “I love my brother, but he and I are two different people.” But, he’ll also be able to tap into the financing of past Bush campaigns and into the gauzy memories of voters.

It’s worked before. Chances are, he could make a very viable run for the presidency.
[ALSO: For a mournful analysis of what's gone wrong in the years of Bush the Younger, from his perspective as a conservative, go to this post by, Rick Moore.]

Presidential campaigns are too long. And so too, now is this post!

4 comments:

Charlie said...

The never-ending campaign of the modern primary system really favors the candidate with the best money-raising ability, not the one with the best ideas. So this long campaign season lets them build a huge war-chest, flood the early primary states with advertising, build name recognition and find favorable talking points... Meanwhile, the dark horse candidates can't get heard.

It's a money-driven system that we now have. In the days of the smoke-filled back rooms, cronyism and influence made candidates, so the dark horse had to know the right people to get a shot.

Both systems tend to lock the ordinary citizen out of the decision-making process. Both systems require the candidate to make deals behind the scenes that translate into influence and payback after the election.

I'm really just thinking out loud here, Mark. In the end, does a sin-corrupted system based on money get us to a worse place than one based on power? What would a third way, something that really empowers the ordinary voter, look like?

Mark Daniels said...

Charlie:
Good points and at the end, a very good question.

No system will be perfect. And no reform will ever fix things. Human beings, being human, will find ways to circumvent all reforms. That's why reform is a never-ending process.

The old system gave us Abraham Lincoln.

It also gave us Warren Harding.

At times, it yielded surprises. For example, Chester Alan Arthur, though not personally corrupt, had, throughout much of his public life countenanced corruption. As customs collector for the Port of New York, he oversaw the collection of 75% of all federal revenues and looked the other way when people scraped cream off the top...along with a lot of the milk. Yet, when he ascended to the presidency, he decided to push civil service reform, becoming one of the great reforming presidents. He also was a proto-conservationist, setting aside vast tracts of land as national forest nearly two decades before another New York Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, came to office.

I don't pine for the good old days. But the current system is a muddle. Ironically, for the reasons you cite, a system designed to open things up and make the process more democratic has resulted in more influence for the wealthy and the powerful and for people in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the early caucus and primary contests happen.

I have nothing against the folks in those states. But usually, by the time the presidential primary is held here in Ohio, for example, the identities of the nominees are foregone conclusions: the losers have packed their bags and the winners have moved onto raising money for the general election campaign.

Apparently, Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature are going to try to move the presidential primary in that state to February. That would have enormous significance. It would, as someone suggested, give liberal Democratic candidates a clearer shot at their party's nomination and also give moderate Republicans more of a chance in that party. It would also knock the losing candidates out more quickly...it takes a lot of money to run a campaign in California. And it would "California-ize" the campaign, with that state's issues take precedence in the national debate like it hasn't heretofore.

As to proposals I might have, I have a few random ideas:

1. Make money less of a factor by imposing draconian limits on campaign spending and contribution levels. I mean severe limits.

2. Require all broadcast media and cable outlets to provide a specified number of hours of access to the public. Candidates could use these hours in any ways they wished, including pooling their time and resources to produce debates involving two or more of the candidates.

3. Do away with public financing of campaigns. With the limits I suggest, it isn't needed.

Under such rules, a premium would be placed on old-fashioned political organization and on candidates cultivating national reputations and acknowledged certification before running for President. But no system will be perfect or insusceptible to corruption.

Mark

Charlie said...

Thanks for the excellent analysis, Mark. I think you're right that the only way to reform the present system is imposing "draconian" limits on contributions and spending.

The goal is never a perfect system, which isn't possible, but a fair system, and one that makes it possible for "backwoods rubes" like A. Lincoln to run with a chance of success.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Charlie!

Mark