Background noise

Editorial Notebook

August 11, 2007|By Karen Hosler

Hillary would take money from lobbyists. Obama would invade Pakistan. John Edwards gets $400 haircuts. Fred Thompson is either an actor playing a politician or a politician playing an actor. Rudy's children don't speak to him. Mitt's a Mormon but only once married. John McCain is the incredible shrinking candidate. And then there's Joe, Bill, Mike, Ron, Chris, Dennis, Tom, Tommy and that guy from Alaska. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Welcome to the interminable presidential campaign of 2008, such a constant presence that it is all but ignored, a political Muzak of background noise. No more than mere snippets of information and impressions break through the consciousness amid war news, congressional debates, bridge collapses and coal mine cave-ins.

Americans are clearly being punished - perhaps especially the candidates - for their failure to insist that the political parties install a rational process for selecting presidential nominees. The torture will serve a valuable purpose, though, if it finally provides the impetus to substantially delay and reduce the primary season, which in this goofy cycle could begin with balloting as early as December.

An encouraging sign is the re-emergence of a proposal made in 1999 by then-Republican Party Chairman Bill Brock to delay primaries or caucuses until March of presidential election years and then hold them in four waves, with the last in June. Mr. Brock's plan envisioned the smallest states voting first and the largest completing the process.

Legislation recently proposed by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut calls for the states to be grouped regionally, and then take turns in the voting rotation. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary would retain their traditional first-in-the-nation status.

There's no way to prevent presidential hopefuls from launching their campaigns as early as they choose. But delaying the actual voting should help keep the primary contests competitive much longer. With 20 or more states, including Maryland, crowded at the beginning of next year's primary calendar, nominees of both parties are certain to be known by February - setting the stage for a one-on-one general election contest that at best will quickly become mind-numbing, at worst dirty and destructive.

Discarding the current front-loaded calendar, which features vote-rich states of California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York among the more than a dozen casting ballots Feb. 5, should also reduce pressure on the candidates to raise so much money so fast. The 2008 race formally got under way in January, with candidates devoting themselves almost entirely to fundraising. In fact, the money chase has provided most of the texture of the primary contest so far.

Not everyone is unhappy with this presidential ultra-marathon. Lots of people are earning paychecks as campaign schedulers, advisers, strategists, advance folks, speechwriters, and, of course, fundraisers. These campaigns also provide grist for a multitude of media outlets, some that exist for the exclusive purpose of reporting on politics.

It might also be argued that long campaigns give voters an opportunity to truly test the candidates' mettle - as well as physical health and endurance. Plus, there have been greater opportunities to see the candidates debate, sometimes in unusual forums, though the sheer size of the candidate herd limits the focus on any individual.

But one year of this, instead of two, seems more than adequate. Voters are simply too busy with other events in their lives to pay close attention until weeks or days before ballots must be cast. Election campaigns also have a way of freezing or tainting other political action.

The soonest a reform of the primary schedule could apply is the 2012 presidential race, and then only if candidates, parties and states can be made to see that reform is in their best interest. They would get that message if they could hear how this cattle call of a campaign sounds to rest of us:

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Moo.

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