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Endless campaign a poor way to choose a president

Published in Seattle Post Intelligence

In the recent dog days of summer, over a hundred people showed up at Seattle’s Washington Institute to meet one of the superficially more improbable candidates for President in 1996, the articulate black Republican, Alan Keyes.

A former Reagan Administration official, Keyes believes that the decline of the family is the central problem in society, around which almost all other problems revolve. His message went over well. He said he’ll be back soon.

For so many citizens to appear at such events a full year before the 1996 national nominating conventions and fifteen months before the final election might seem remarkable. But, decision time for activists is not next spring; it’s now.

Presidential campaigns are being organized and financed earlier than ever before. Competition to attract attention from candidates and the media has encouraged states to set their primaries earlier and earlier on the calendar. As a result, the first primaries next year will come in February. Only seven weeks later, in April, over 80 percent of all public votes for delegates will be over.

If candidates waited to enter the race until the primary season was nearly underway, as Dwight Eisenhower did in 1952, they would be too late to qualify legally, let alone to assemble a team. (Attention, Gen. Colin Powell.) A strategy like President Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1940–when he did not declare his candidacy until the eve of the Democratic convention–is unimaginable in our time.

Since Washington State recently moved its own presidential primary forward to March 26, we, too, are suddenly part of the scramble. That and fundraising opportunities are the reasons that candidates already are showing up. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have all flown in. Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, who still thinks a coherent foreign policy is important, apparently has decided that Washington could be a breakthrough state for his candidacy and is planning several visits. Malcom S. (“Steve”) Forbes, Jr., publisher of Forbes magazine (“The Capitalist Tool”), may visit Seattle soon after a likely declaration of candidacy this month. Now that our primary falls on the same date as nearby California’s, even the frontrunning Sen. Bob Dole is increasing his interest in Washington State, according to his national political consultant, Don Devine.

Meanwhile, Washington is a must-win state for the Democrats in the final election, so don’t be surprised to see lots of President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

In the month of March in past presidential election years, we were all watching the first primary. But next March, Washington State will be taking part in one of the last of the important ones. Thereafter, the identity of the two presidential nominees may well be known–and then we will fall into the rut of a six month long final election drive. Spring’s excitement will be brief, the frustrations that follow interminable.

If you believe that democracy benefits from some relatively quiet time between spasms of political extravagance, this is not the way to organize our national elections. Neither a sitting president nor his opponent is likely to behave like a statesman when a campaign atmosphere dominates. Leadership suffers when a presidency is preoccupied with the next election for a full two years out of a four year term of office.

When you consider that the first six months or so of a president’s term are absorbed in putting an administration together–another process elongated in recent times–the normal tasks of governing actually are getting only about a year and a half of our Chief Executive’s undivided attention. And the same is true for most of his would-be opponents.

Americans don’t hate these politicians. They just get very tired of them. But, no immediate change is possible. Party rules and presidential primary dates are already locked into place for 1996.

The only cure for the coming epidemic of politics-fatigue is for citizens in this election cycle to demand that the two major parties and Congress push the primaries back to something like their old schedule for the year 2000. Parties, for example, should pass rules precluding the seating of convention delegates that are chosen before, say, April of an election year. And Congress should refuse to provide candidates with federal matching funds until roughly the same period.

In an era of instantaneous and ubiquitous communications, why should our political system require five times as long to choose a president as it did in the days of Grover Cleveland?

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.