The perpetual campaign

With presidential candidates and incumbents always on the stump, politics trumps policymaking

January 28, 2009|By David Wise

A presidential term is four years, but the last two years of the first term are now spent on the re-election campaign, and an expanding part of the second term is taken up selecting a successor - effectively highlighting the lame-duck status of the incumbent.

Who is minding the store while everyone is out on the hustings? How are statecraft and intelligent policy advanced by two years of repeating the same focus-group-crafted stump speeches and repeating the same index-card responses to "debate" questions? The argument that this lengthy process somehow helps us test and really get to know the candidates was belied with the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee; the person who could have stood one breath away from the presidency was admitted to the ticket based on a single, brief meeting, without any serious vetting. We might also question whether the ambition and ego necessary to endure dissection of personal lives - not to mention at least 24 months of sleeping in motels and eating bad chicken dinners from Des Moines to Dallas - is the best screening technique to produce leaders and statesmen.

The sad fact of the matter is that the job of elected officials has become to run for re-election, not to govern or steward for the future generations. Policy is decided with a short-term horizon and on the enduring wisdom of the next polling data. This explains why our national energy policy is dictated by the current pump price of gasoline, why a war was started without briefing books having been read, why the military branches are withering under a broken procurement system carried on without oversight, and why our financial system collapsed and bailout plans du jour are passed with little debate or through executive action. President George W. Bush lost what was in essence a vote of no confidence in November 2006, and in the intervening 26 months - while there was an endless string of straw polls, caucuses, primaries and staged debates - he remained in office, increasingly powerless to deal with multiple crises, waiting for the whole play to begin again with a new lead, starting Jan. 21, 2009.

Since the United States is not going to adopt a parliamentary system, in which the campaigns are brief and transitions rapid, what can be done? Although true reform would require a constitutional amendment, some steps could be taken now.

First, the two major political parties could agree to and enforce rules grouping diversified states into fewer primary and caucuses dates, starting perhaps in February or March in the election year. These rules would not permit organized debates until a few weeks before the first grouping. Second, the parties should encourage the use of superdelegates - much maligned in the recent election but originally put forward as a reform to ensure that the nominee arrived in Washington with governing allies. This system would also lessen the incentive for earlier and earlier campaigning. Third, the party conventions should always be held close to Labor Day, the semi-official beginning of the fall campaign. Finally, the presidential debates should be grouped around and limited to specific topics, and a diversified panel of questioners should be selected to ensure that meaningful questions are asked, rather than general statements inviting canned responses. The questioners should also have significant range for follow-up questions.

Of course, it would also help if the media focused on analysis of the policies being espoused by the candidates, rather than on the horse race - but let's climb one mountain at a time.

David Wise, a businessman and writer who lives in Annapolis, was a three-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention. His e-mail is

wisedw@comcast.net.

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