Electoral Dysfunction

Okay, who else is already sick of the 2008 presidential campaign?

On NPR's Morning Edition on February 9, former DNC chairman and current Hillary Clinton strategist Terry McAuliffe predicted, "A year from today, there is a nominee of the Democratic and Republican party," citing the number of states which have moved or are considering moving their primary dates earlier in order to have some influence on the process. Under this scenario, the parties will have anointed their "presumptive" candidates six whole months before they hold their increasingly pointless infomercials...I mean, conventions -- and a full ten months before the general election.

We've just endured a week in which two of the prominent Democratic hopefuls began their public sniping, and it wasn't pretty. Are you telling me we've got to put up with TWENTY MORE MONTHS of this crap? Heck, that's long enough for Ross Perot to declare his candidacy, withdraw, announce again, pull out again, get back into the race a third time and still have time to withdraw again. The way things are going, I expect the first candidate for 2012 to announce the formation of his exploratory committee during the inaugural address of whoever wins in 2008.

Does anyone - the candidates, the media, the public -- have the stomach for this marathon? Aren't we in an age of acceleration? Shouldn't the internet and the 24-hour news cycle allow us to make decisions more quickly than they did in the days when ballots had to be transported on horseback? If the Academy Awards campaign season can be mercifully shortened, surely we can make some common-sense revisions to how we choose our commander-in-chief.

My suggestions:

  • No one can formally announce their intention to run for President until one year before the election. That means, for the intervening twelve months, permanent-campaign-mode is suspended and the government must focus on governing. So until this November 7, Senators Clinton, McCain, Obama and their friends would have to spend their time running the country, rather than running for running the country. This would give potential candidates the advantage of being able to point to genuine achievements during their tenure besides raising money for their presidential campaigns. And what about folks who aren't currently in office, like Giuliani or Edwards? They'd have to devote this off-year to projects that improve society, not just improve their odds of becoming president. Look how vital and happy Al Gore became once he stopped running for president and started doing something with his life. Why, it's made him positively presidential!

  • Instead of moving other states' primaries earlier and earlier, move the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary later. Nobody wants to spend January and February in Iowa or New Hampshire, especially the people who live there. What do you say we delay the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire until next April? They should be finished shoveling this weekend's snow by then.
  • Even better, let's switch to a national primary system to eliminate the disproportional influence of those first states, whatever they may be. I'm sick of hearing about the importance of "retail politics" in which the residents of the early, smaller states get greater personal attention from the candidates who camp out there for months with nothing better to do than hold town meetings and stand outside factory gates. For one thing, this gladhanding has little relevance to the reality of the rest of the campaign, which will be conducted mostly via commercials, televised debates and computerized phone calls which insinuate that Barack Obama's children have a black father. Moreover, being able to woo voters door-to-door doesn't prove that you have the skills to run the country. It's as if we declared that whoever sells the most Girl Scout Cookies gets to run Exxon/Mobil. A preposterous notion, I know, since that job traditionally goes to the last crony standing at the end of a Cheney quail hunt.

  • The media cannot declare any candidate to be the "front-runner" until at least one vote has actually been cast, and pollsters can no longer tell us what the public thinks of the candidates until the candidates have first had a chance to tell the public what they think. Whenever I hear someone on TV discussing polls this early in the process, they give their obligatory disclaimer that "polls this far in advance are meaningless" - right after they've spent valuable airtime dissecting the meaning of these meaningless numbers. If you're going to start alerting us when a news story you're reporting is meaningless, please preface all your Anna Nicole Smith coverage accordingly. Besides, we all know that polls at this stage primarily gauge name recognition. You may as well be telling us, "If the election were held today, Oprah Winfrey would narrowly defeat SpongeBob SquarePants." And stop asking your polling victims which candidate they would rather have a beer with. We're not electing America's "first buddy". I have no doubt that Dubya would be a laugh-a-minute at a barbeque. Doesn't mean he should be ruling the free world.
  • Lose the Electoral College - the vestigial organ of our democracy and, for over 200 years, America's worst party college. In 2004, my vote in California, the country's most populous state, was deemed meaningless because everyone knew that all of our 55 electoral votes were a lock for the Democrats. Meanwhile, Kerry and Bush were practically stalking my mother in the swing state of Wisconsin, where the thirty minutes of campaign ads every night at 6 and 10pm were occasionally interrupted for news, sports and weather. I know this winner-take-all nonsense makes Tim Russert drool on his whiteboard as he calculates all the possible electoral-vote permutations, but those Blue state vs. Red state maps distorted the legitimate political differences in the country and no doubt heightened the bitter partisanship of the years since. As you may recall, our previous experiment in which we color-coded our states either Blue and Gray didn't work out too well. And don't windbag me about the infallible wisdom of the founding fathers in establishing the convoluted Electoral College, unless you're also prepared to undo the direct election of senators and deny the vote to women, 18-year-olds and slaves. If the 2000 election results had been reversed, with Al Gore taking office with a majority of electoral votes but a minority of the popular vote, is there any doubt that the abolition of the Electoral College would have been issue #1 for Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the congressional Republicans? Well, at least until September 12, 2001, when they would have demanded Gore's immediate impeachment after he sat paralyzed in a schoolroom and did nothing when informed that the nation was under terrorist attack.
  • Finally, if we can't delay the start of the campaign season, let's move up the end. If the parties' candidates will indeed be chosen by next February, why should we have to wait until November for the general election? I say we eliminate the useless conventions and make election day the Fourth of July. It's patriotic, easy to remember, and everyone's already got the day off, so there's no excuse for not voting. We could swear in the new president on Labor Day -- perfect symbolism for putting the government back to work. I'm sure Bush wouldn't mind returning to the ranch a few months early to catch up on his brush-clearing. He barely seems interested in his current job any more, fumbling through the same dog-eared talking points he's been using since 2002, trudging to the Oval Office every morning to check his "Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today" list. He's already made it clear that his biggest Dumb Thing - the war in Iraq - will be left in the hands of his successor. Why should we have to wait until January 20, 2009, to start cleaning up his mess?
  • Who's with me?