Politically, if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that there’s nothing we can all agree on. But one thing comes close:
The presidential campaign is too darned long.
A couple of years ago, I reread Theodore White’s “The Making of the President, 1960” and was stunned to realize that John F. Kennedy didn’t officially enter the race until Jan. 2, 1960; Richard M. Nixon followed a week later. Both men had been plotting to run for years, but these days, if you waited until January of election year to officially get into the race, you’d be dead on arrival.
These days we have nearly perpetual campaigns. No doubt, there are politicians who already are holding secret meetings to organize their 2016 campaigns. The only break we’re getting this year is that only one party’s nomination is up for grabs.
The British do this right. By law, Parliamentary elections are held on the 17th day after the previous Parliament is dissolved, not counting weekends and holidays. If the United States adopted this timetable, it would be way, way cheaper. We could finance the elections out of public funds, ending the legalized bribery that is the campaign finance system.
We’d compress all the horrible campaign commercials, debates and general backstabbing to roughly the period between the start of the baseball playoffs and the end of the World Series. Think of the peace of mind.
We don’t do it this way because we’ve never done it this way. The current system evolved (if that’s the word) gradually and now is entrenched, supporting an entire class of influential people. The political class is to politics what those birds called “oxpeckers” are to rhinoceroses and water buffaloes: They sit on their backs and dine off the ticks.
Today’s campaigns primarily are a way to transfer money from special interests to local television stations, while feeding a lot of oxpeckers along the way.
A big-bucks donor writes a check, which is spent paying consultants who design the strategy, produce the commercials and buy time in whatever TV market the campaign wants to reach that week. In 2010, an off-year election, mind you, more than $3 billion was spent on political advertising.
Complicit in all of this is my industry, the National Association of Pundits. Most members of NAP are too lazy or too dumb to worry about the complex nuances of public policy. We ought to join the National Association of Turf Writers; clearly we’re more comfortable with horse racing.
Plus, we’re easily distracted. We’re like Dory, the Blue Tangfish with short-term memory problems in “Finding Nemo.” When Marlin the clownfish wants to distract her, he says, “Look! Something shiny!” And off they go.
Consider how all of this is playing out in the recent televised “debates” among half of the 16 declared candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. You get into the debates only when someone arbitrarily decides you’ve gotten 2 percent to 4 percent in a reliable poll somewhere.
This leaves out my own personal favorite declared GOP candidate, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, with whom I disagree on practically everything except the need to get money out of politics. If he could do that, I’d ignore the fact that it would be weird to have a president named “Buddy” and vote for him anyway. Get money out politics and the rest of the problems would take care themselves.
But Roemer is not something shiny. For that matter, neither is pizza baron Herman Cain or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman or craggy old Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The word “tarnish” was practically invented for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had a brief shiny moment that now appears to be over, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has enough money that he can pay people to keep him shiny. The shiny new guy is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, so in the debates everybody picks on him.
The cable networks are helping to sponsor these debates, so they’re long on show-biz effects and short on substance. The NAP members then deconstruct them like they’re reading The Racing Form, forgetting the fact that even the highest-rated debate so far — the Sept. 7 affair during which Perry made his debut — drew only about 8 million viewers.
And unless those viewers live in Iowa or one of the early primary states, it’s unlikely they’ll have a chance to vote for most of these candidates come next January or February; small-state primaries being a separately stupid part of the way America chooses its presidents.
It’s only the most important office in the world. If Americans are to get the government we deserve, we need to fix the way we fill it.