Do you sometimes hear people talk and think to yourself, right topic wrong conversation. That’s how I’ve been feeling in hearing various states assert their right to move primary dates up, threatening in fact to have them begin before this pre-election year ends. No, it’s not that I come in defense of Iowa or New Hampshire, but rather against the current primary calendar altogether. And no, it’s not a matter of who comes first and why, but that I think all the primaries are far too early. Even if the current calendar stands, we will already have been suffering the presidential campaign too long. I don’t use the world “suffering” lightly. Some people say that no one really pays attention until after Labor Day (the year before the vote). Perhaps they don’t, but even that is ridiculously early. More than a year before the election, we have had two fields of candidates out on the hustings telling all who might listen why they would be the best choice for our next leader. Does that make any sense? I think not.
Let’s start with something practical. There are nineteen candidates in the race today of which ten (more than half) hold public office. Six senators, three House members and one governor are working only part time at their taxpayer paid job. On the Democratic side, two of the three alleged leading candidates sit in the Senate, representing very large states. Isn’t it fair to ask, if the constituencies represented by them and all the other public employees are getting a fair return on their dollar, not to mention adequate representation? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think only private citizens should run for President. The fact is that those holding public office, especially high public office are often the most qualified. But it is undeniable that their run impacts on their regular job and also that everything they do or say when “at work” is colored by their candidacy. That was evident when Presidential candidates sat on the committees hearing testimony from General Petraeus. Not only did they ask few questions, giving their limited time to making statements, but every word said was measured, utterances I’d call “candidate-speak” not officeholder-speak. It both put a burden on them and robbed us of what these highly experienced and smart people might have gotten out of the general and his ambassador sidekick.
But here is something even more troubling. It is now suggested that we may know the nominees of both parties as early as February. In that context, it is conceivable that from then until the fall elections – eight months – we will see two Presidential candidates on the Senate floor, though don’t count on much attendance. How much do you think will get done with that dynamic? But that isn’t really the problem. We are living in fast moving times in which the dynamic of governance can change from one moment to the next. At present, encumbered by a system of government established by the founders in the eighteenth century, we have no way of replacing our leadership even in times when it has totally lost the confidence of a large majority of voters. We could impeach them, but that is a purposefully cumbersome process that works only when the President is a crook, not when he is the author of wrongheaded, even disastrous, policy. Think about this. Not only can’t we replace the President when times call for different leadership, we will be locked into Presidential candidates in much the same way. That puts us at a double disadvantage.
The wrong conversation? Yes, and here is what I think we should be talking about. First, primaries should take place in June, about four months before the election. Second, no candidate should be allowed to announce or begin campaigning before January 1st of the same year, six months before the first primary. That may sound radical, but I think it would potentially increase both voter interest and participation. Election fatigue is less likely to set in. To be sure, the idea of drawn out campaigns (and they were never this long then) was to afford candidates the opportunity of introducing themselves to the electorate. John McCain’s symbolic bus tour notwithstanding, we have long passed the day of the whistle stop and, one could argue even the now seemingly primitive reach of network TV. The Internet puts it all out before us and the candidates themselves can have unlimited time to speak their minds whether with written word or video – in real time if they wish. If Americans who never heard of her can become acquainted with Paris Hilton in a matter of days, they should be able to get a handle on Presidential candidates in six to nine months.
The system I am proposing would give potential candidates more time to think about whether they really want to run and us a longer time to see them (especially those in office) perform their present duties less encumbered by needing to stay on campagin message. It would also be an important financial reform because campaign costs (especially for staff and travel) would be greatly reduced. That in itself has the potential of putting all the candidates on a more level playing field. Financial reform needs to go a lot further, but it’s a start. Moreover, when you make a dramatic change like restricting a campaign’s duration, you begin to look at the whole process.
One final thing. I’m a little tired (an understatement) of voting for the lesser of two evils or for some decent person who doesn’t really excite me. I’m definitely not alone in that. I have nightmares about us virtually nominating her or him in February only to discover that another her or him would have been a better more compelling choice for where we are rather than where we might be nine months later. We’ve had the wrong him in place for way too long now and can ill afford another mistake like that, a mistake for which, in one way or another, we are all responsible. The current system did its part and its damage in that as well.