I don’t know about you, but even I– who has spent much of my adult life concerned with politics at one level or another– have become utterly disenchanted in the current, almost stultifying presidential campaign despite the fact it may produce the first woman or the first black chief executive in history.
Among the more debilitating aspects of this marathon is its impact on any chance that some of America’s most pressing needs will be dealt with over the next year and a half. Partially because of this the current president is as a lame a duck as any since Woodrow Wilson lay incapacitated while his wife ran the country. George W. Bush did manage to win a horrendous expansion of surveillance powers from Congress, but only by scaring the pants off the Democrats. Everything else, including immigration, will just lay there, falling victim to the never-ending maneuvering over who will occupy the Oval Office come a year from January.
So besides the campaign’s boring everyone to death — except the handful of political junkies who report for the few remaining viable newspapers and their electronic brethren, who insist on lining up all these clowns on television for an interminable number of what can be laughingly referred to as “debates” — there is the ludicrous expense. Millions upon millions are being spent on winning a job where one of the key problems always is how to save money while providing for the basic needs of less fortunate Americans. Might it now be suggested that everyone involved in this exercise assign a percentage of his or her collections to some worthwhile charity — like helping to lower the national debt?
Part of the blame for this rightly belongs to major states, which have become thoroughly disgusted with being cut out of the presidential-selection sweepstakes. In the last decades, the process has been pretty much left up to Iowa and New Hampshire — the first hosting a mere caucus and the second a primary. By dint of their places at the start of the selection process, the two contests have had far too much influence in the entire matter for too long. To rectify this, big states have moved up their contests to have voices in the matter until, alas, the events threaten to interfere with the 2007 Christmas holiday.
All this, of course, has assured us of at least two presidential nominees, one Republican and one Democratic, almost before the New Year’s Eve hangovers have disappeared. Then what? You can count on more of the same, actually. This time, however, you will be treated to months of name-calling and mud-slinging and wrangling and promises and predictions ad nauseam far sooner than Labor Day, which in the old days was pretty much the official beginning of the presidential scramble. Candidates frequently even took a couple of weeks off after their nominating conventions.
Two examples: Wendell Willkie climbed aboard Roy Howard’s yacht for a few days of R&R after winning the 1940 Republican nomination in Philadelphia, and Hubert Humphrey headed for his Minnesota retreat in Waverly after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention. (Much to the unhappiness of his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, who finally convinced him to get back into action before it was too late, which it was.)
What’s the answer to all this uncontrolled seeking of a job that anyone in his or her right mind would run away from as fast as possible? There are those who tout dividing the nation into three major regional primaries. But that seems even more expensive and probably would result in even more disharmony among the states than already exists.
How about returning to the “good old days,” if one is foolish enough to think they really were? That would mean returning the conventions and party machinery to a position of power, with state caucuses producing delegates to each quadrennial affair; some were pledged and some were not. In other words, leaving room for maneuvering behind the scenes. The rooms, of course, would no longer be smoke-filled, but the result would be the same. This approach worked relatively well in the past.
But until someone comes up with a plan all can agree to — which is probably never — our senses are likely to continue to be assaulted every two years by an increasing number of candidates who believe they have the right answers for the country and want to tell you about it.
Forget 2008. Can you imagine what the 2012 campaign will be like? It probably will begin in late 2009 with a cast of dozens, at least a third of them from the U.S. Senate and the rest current or former governors.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)