THEY'RE BACK. Quadrennially these scolds of the political landscape descend upon us. Not the presidential candidates the academics who would reform, rationalize and reduce the process of electing a president.
They have two favorite notions: Shorten the campaign season, and eliminate political-action committees. As Sam Rayburn said of John Kennedy, I'd feel better if one of them had ever run for sheriff.
First, the shorter campaign. Ninety days, they say, is enough. No, it's not. A year or more is just right. I want to see how the candidate handles stress, fatigue and issues that unexpectedly emerge, or change, or become unpredictably polarizing. I want to see if he can keep his base support for at least a quarter of the time he'll need it as president. I want to see if he can develop new support generated by new ideas, or emerging issues. I want to see him nearly run out of money, and then watch as he decides how to raise more. To whom does he turn, and what positions rotate as he twists? To whom does he not turn? That might tell us something, too.
Ninety days? I wouldn't buy a round lot of a cheap stock based upon one quarter's results. Only a charlatan broker would encourage that transaction.
A 90-day campaign would guarantee that only three kinds of candidates would have a chance: established national politicians, multi-millionaires with little or no government or political experience and, least likely but most frightening, a charismatic megalomaniac exploiting some national hysteria.
Some say that the current system already assures that only the entrenched now have a chance to be elected president. I guess that means men and women who have been validated by their constituents and scrutinized by the press and the public for several years. I happen to think that's just fine.
PACs, the reformers say, are the other big problem. Reduce or eliminate their nefarious influence, they argue, and politics will again focus on the reinvigorated individual voter. Their companion claim is that politicians spend too much time raising money, though they fail to explain how that time and effort might be reduced by seeking donations from say, individual nurses rather than through the American Nurses Association.
The average American adult belongs to four associations, which may be professional, trade or union groups or common-interest association such as the American Association of Retired Persons, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the 4-H, the National Association of Securities Dealers, the PTA or the Boy Scouts.
For voters these groups are not ''nefarious PACs'' but a way to be heard. Voters know very well that an individual $25 campaign donation will have no impact, as compared to the consolidated ** funds and articulated arguments that the association representing their interests can deliver.
No group without an agenda
If there is genuine ''common cause'' in American politics, it might well be the nation's associations, unions, professional societies, clubs and churches. No one of those groups is without a PAC, or at least a political agenda.
Elimination of a common political voice, a PAC, is tantamount to disenfranchisement, not only because of fragmented financial clout, but because the average American hasn't the time, skill or inclination to develop a coherent political message delivered in a sophisticated manner to an institutional power. Professional /^ lobbyists, working through associations with PACs, represent nearly every American's interests.
If something is fundamentally wrong with American politics, it is the electorate, not the system. It is easier to ascribe institutional blame, granting ourselves a counterfeit expiation.
So let the campaign continue. Let the PACs do for their members what the members cannot do for themselves. And let's hope that the association's newsletter to its members, or the sudden and provocative issue, will somehow reach the consciousness of the average voter. It's a long campaign, so there's hope.
J. Craig Barnes writes from Baltimore.
Pub Date: 3/12/96