The excitement of the pugnacious prizefight that was the second presidential debate cannot obscure the fact that the US presidential election season is simply too long. For the unfortunate political junkies, life has been on hold for years – perhaps on permanent hold. Worse, for Americans, governance has been on hold for well over a year, with initiatives limited to shoring up the Obama base by pandering to liberal women, Hispanics, blacks, unions, etc. It is government as the provider of benefits to the favored classes, and never mind the deficit, the economy or global issues. Remember how President Bush was lambasted for waiting 10 minutes on September 11, 2001 and not running out on the kindergarten class he was visiting in Sarasota, Florida? Barack Obama can preside over the next terrorist attack on American soil – the consulate in Benghazi – and fly immediately to a fund-raiser in Nevada without suffering the same criticism. After all, it is election season, and there are priorities.
That the election season is interminable is non-partisan and an American failure. Undoubtedly, no matter who wins on November 6, on November 7 pundits will be already speculating on the 2016 race. Will Obama mount a comeback? Will Hillary Clinton succeed in her quest of the last decade? Are there Republicans of national stature who are waiting in the dugout?
Contrast this horserace with elections in the rest of the world. Israel has set its new elections for January 22, 2013, a little more than three months from now. It is not unfathomable that elections in the UK take place within three weeks of the dissolution of Parliament. For sure, the parliamentary system lends itself to irregular elections, and so the process is shorter. But the Russians also have regular elections these days, and their campaign is still briefer than ours. It must help to have only one candidate running.
The American process takes years, and literally never ends. It is a law of diminishing returns. By this time, nothing new that is relevant emerges about either candidate and that was just as true six months ago. It is inconceivable that anyone paying attention is still undecided, notwithstanding their protestations of neutrality to gullible pollsters. The system is still designed for the 19th century – even though most candidates then did not travel around the country making the same speech over and over again as is done today. (Can’t they just record the speech and play it on television? Must they travel to every hick town – at great expense – and deliver it again and again?)
The long season requires enormous funding. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with money in politics; it’s the American way (free speech and all) and Americans still spend more on chocolate than on presidential campaigns. Big campaign money is only a problem when the other side has it. Democrats had an almost-religious belief in the value of public funding of campaigns – until Obama opted out in 2008; suddenly, that Holy Grail was deconsecrated, perhaps forever. But the downside is that the money enables candidates to lie, deceive and defame, and it adds very little of substance to the fateful choice voters have to make. It debases the process, especially as it appeals to the most simplistic and unsophisticated voters. Negative campaigning works, and has always worked –and the only way to diminish its effects is to shorten the campaign.
Is it unrealistic to have a campaign season in the US that holds the primaries in September and the elections in October? Conventions are outmoded time wasters. The pageantry is impressive but profligate. The nominee is known already. There is no suspense. Let the candidates speak on television, debate if they must, and then have the election. And even if the process stretches to two months – elections in November – must the new president wait to take office until January 20? That is another 2½ months – for what? Form a cabinet in two weeks – even better, let the candidates form a shadow cabinet during the campaign so people can see with whom they wish to associate. Before the 1930s, presidents were inaugurated on March 4! Is January 20 these days really any better?
Of course, this would mean that presidents would actually have to govern, and not simply plot their re-election as soon as they entered office. It would mean that Congress would have to be in session a lot longer and also concentrate on governing, not running. That would be a sea change in American life, and it is long overdue.
The second reason for the election blues is the result of the peculiar election season upon us. Never before have candidates so limited their appearances to so few states. Apparently, there are roughly ten states that matter in this election – the swing states. All other states are taken for granted. Their votes are already in the bag, and there is nothing to discuss. It doesn’t even pay to vote, we are led to believe.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a senior Romney advisor to encourage the candidate to come to New Jersey – come to Teaneck, for that matter – and was informed that both campaigns determine which states are winnable (or not) and apply their resources accordingly. Therefore, they come to New York, New Jersey, or California never to campaign and only to raise money – to be spent in the swing states.
Most states – forty (!) – don’t really matter. Obama will not win Texas and Romney will not win California. Duke Ellington was right: “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.”
This is all a function of the Electoral College in which the votes for the losing candidate in most states simply don’t count. Winner-take-all is literal. While I have never been on the “abolish-the-electoral-college” bandwagon, the country has become so divided, and people apparently have chosen to reside with like-minded compatriots, that the Electoral College today has simply become undemocratic. Only a few states are even contested. Can it change? It might in the future – there may be a candidate on the horizon that has broad, not sectoral, appeal – but it does not seem feasible in the acrimonious atmosphere that prevails today. The current system disenfranchises. Even though Mitt Romney has narrowed the gap in New Jersey, he is prudent spending his time and money elsewhere.
How little do our votes matter in New Jersey? Few campaign commercials are aired. There are almost no signs on lawns for either candidate. In fact, driving on a major Teaneck thoroughfare yesterday, the only campaign sign I saw was… “McCain-Palin 2008.”
Obviously, that family was so distressed by the results, the interminable campaign, and the uselessness of their votes, that they have not set foot from their house in four years.
Who can blame them?