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Please, Mr. President and Congress, A Shorter Campaign Next Time

Never have so many politicians worked so hard and spent so much to achieve so little change. With the White House still in Democratic hands, Congress still Republican and exactly the same partisan division of governors, the nation’s politics are roughly where they were a year and a half ago when history’s longest presidential campaign began. What was achieved? Altogether, marathon fundraising and organizing and advertising achieved a great record low turnout, 49 percent.

The result of the voters’ collective mixed message was, give us more of the same. What each voter was saying was more complex, of course. But surely there is one point on which we each might agree: This thing went on far too long.

Fourteen months ago I wrote in this space that bunching the presidential primaries together and “front loading” them in the winter and early spring of 1996 would prolong the campaign agony for citizens as well as candidates. No wonder the mood by election day was one of embarrassment approaching nausea in many voters, and stunned apathy in the rest. By the end my neighbors were muttering that they wished they had gone away on vacation. Friends said they were tempted to lock themselves in their houses, disconnect the television and take up meditation–or worse. Some may have been driven mad; they haven’t been seen in weeks, and certainly didn’t show up at the polls.

It customarily is said that the voters don’t start paying attention to campaigns until Labor Day. This year they worked hard to avert their eyes through the whole show. Thus the paradox: The longer the campaign, the less the public pays attention. To be charitable, it wasn’t so much a lack of interest as the gagging lack of oxygen one encounters in the air of unreality around a campaign. You can take the atmospheric depression for a couple months, but then you start to pass out.

Nor is the national mental health the only loss. A President was distracted from his duties for over one fourth of his first term. Not that he minded, of course. But those days of fundraising and leading rallies were days when he did not attend to normal business. The same goes for the voters. The months spent learning–falsely–that Medicare was threatened were months when long term solutions to the looming entitlement crisis were not addressed at all. Indeed, it could be said that by avoiding the real issues facing the country, or exploiting them for demagogic ends, the national campaign served to decrease the sum of popular knowledge.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In September, while our campaign ground on, the Japanese called a national election, and six weeks later, held it. All the action was concentrated, and therefore bearable.

We have come to the stage of our history where elections no longer provide political catharsis. Nor do they produce anger or division, necessarily. They produce exhaustion.

Of course there are no panaceas in public life, but there are some things that could help prevent a repeat of the Long Campaign of 1996. First, the President and Congress could agree to prohibit any dispersal of federal campaign matching funds to abet funds raised by presidential candidates, unless they were raised after December, 1999. That would tend to dry up about four to six months of early campaigning, or at least to slow it.

The second contribution to sanity would be to change the election date from November to October and move the inauguration forward from late January to early December. In the Information Age we donít need several months to communicate with voters. “The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November” is a date set in law in 1872; itís not the Constitution, and there is nothing sacred about it. The inauguration date also can be changed. The third week in January is typically the worst week of winter in Washington, D.C., while early December is usually cold, but endurable, and sometimes quite pleasant.

Knocking out a month of campaigning at the end would concentrate peopleís interest while weakening the present demand for money for television ads. Thereís only so much air time for sale, and after a campaign starts buying it during the midnight wrestling matches, you know they are over-spending. If the First Amendment cannot limit spending, let the calendar do it.

Another reform would be to persuade the political parties to pass a rule refusing to seat delegates to the national nominating conventions who were selected in primaries held before mid-March. This apparently is the only way to force states to repeal the front-loaded schedule and thereby to shorten the campaign. Unfortunately, this reform needed approval at this yearís conventions in order to apply in 2000.

Besides, all of this was known by the parties over a year ago and ignored. Now that the campaign is over, the lesson also will be ignored by the public until it is taught once more in 2000. Then it will be too late, again, to change before 2004. There does not seem to be enough sustained public annoyance to force Washington, D.C. to fix the problem.

Fellow voters, am I wrong about that?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.