In Praise Of The Quickie
CBS political analyst Dick Meyer thinks the U.S. could learn from the short election cycles that will chose the next British Prime Minister and pope.
All democracies set a maximum period between elections. In parliamentary systems, the head of state can dissolve the legislature and call for an election at any time, so elections aren’t scheduled as they are here. Ironically, it is our system that has produced a de facto perpetual election where in practical terms there is virtually no time between campaigns, especially legislative campaigns.
Scholars and pundits look for complex diagnoses of political turnoff: polarization, special interest money, bad media, culture war or economic inequality. While there is certainly something deeper alienating Americans from civic life, maybe we’re also missing something obvious about what makes office-seeking so unappealing. Maybe it’s not rocket science. Maybe campaigns are just too long. And even if that’s not anything like a root cause, perhaps shortening campaigns would alleviate many nasty symptoms.
Until 1972, presidential candidates for the most part didn’t start electioneering until after the summer nominating conventions. Then the parties installed open primaries and caucuses and that extended the campaign – and extended it and extended it and extended it. The length of campaigns now is really determined by party apparatchiks and the professional political class. It’s not constitutional law here. It’s not written in stone. Shorter campaigns would be cheaper. They would be less obnoxious. They would, I firmly believe, attract a better class of candidate. If you talk to politicians about campaigns, what they complain about is how relentless and undignified the groveling for money has become; long campaigns demand thick wallets. Many people – most people – don’t want to submit to that.
Faster elections might also help the winners – the elected officials who make our laws (remember those guys from the olden days?) – act more like elected officials and not like perpetual candidates: scaredy-cat incumbents scheming to squeak out the next election. Every vote now is weighed against how it might play in a thirty-second attack ad. Social Security legislation in Congress, for example, is being waged as a campaign, with advertising blitzkriegs, front groups and spin doctors. That’s the way it is. It’s not the way it has to be. Just look at the Old World.
All true. The problem, though, is with the comparisons.
The Roman Catholic Church is an oligarchy. While picking a new pope is a momentous task, it’s comparatively easy. The electorate is tiny–cardinals under 80–and the pool of candidates is coterminous with the electorate. The voters are thus incredibly well informed and knowledgable about the candidates from Day 1.
The UK has a parliamentary system. Voters have a single decision to make: Which party do they prefer? If it’s Labour or Conservative, the choice is easy: vote that way for Member of Parliament and hope others do the same. If it’s a minor party, voters must also make some strategic calculations. Regardless, a parliamentary system essentially amounts to a perpetual campaign. The whole of Tony Blair’s prime ministership has been an appeal for continuation of Labour Government. Even if Blair were to step down as Labour leader, the choice remains essentially the same. One does not vote “the man, not the party” in a parliamentary system.
By contrast, the US has an incredibly complex system by comparison. As every schoolboy knows, we have both federalism and separation of powers. Because of federalism, we have manifold state and local elections in addition to those for national level leaders. Because of separation of powers–and a bicameral legislature–Americans must select a House Member every two years, a Senator every six years, and a president every four.
Presidents are eligible for a maximum of two terms in office and the pool of candidates is immense and mostly unknown to the electorate. The presidency is a distinctly personal office, so a relatively long campaign is essential. It’s true that parties once chose their candidates without consulting the voters. I doubt many people favor returning to that system.
Because the House is supposed to be the most democratic of our national institutions, we have elections every two years. Because of fundraising requirements, there is a sense in which there is indeed a perpetual campaign. Still, incumbents are virtually always re-elected, so it’s a rather stealthy campaign. A third of the Senate is up for election every two years as well, although each Senator has a six year term. So, there’s a perpetual campaign in the aggregate sense but not in every state.
It’s inconceivable to me that we could enact legislation that would meaningfully shorten our campaigns, since campaigning is merely political speech. Nor is it at all clear to me that doing so would be desireable even if it were feasible. Advertising to persuade consumers to switch brands of beer or diet cola is certainly more prevalent than the political variety. One could argue that the latter is more important.