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September 18. 2013 12:43AM

Charles Arlinghaus: Here is to hoping for a shorter election season


 

Political reporters, like the rest of us, tend to be schizophrenic, and our actions often belie our words. We pretend to hate the perpetual campaign cycle, and we profess a longing for the days of shorter campaigns, but we don't really mean it. What we actually want is a never-ending campaign and endless stories about political horse races to ensure that no one ever discusses public policy in any meaningful way again.

It is conceivable that I am guilty of a modicum of exaggeration here. But you'll forgive me if I take a break from boring you with tirades about policy this week and instead attempt to make a case for trying to delay as long as possible a discussion of who is running for what.

For decades we have heard stories about the perpetual campaign. It is supposed to be bad for democracy that campaigns never seem to end. The day after the last election, we start to speculate who will run in the one that is only 730 days away. Presidential exploratory forays for 2016 begin before the 2012 election results have been validated by the Electoral College.

Wouldn't it be better, we're asked, if the United States followed some European model where an election campaign is announced for a precise and very short period? The British election campaign in 2012 lasted precisely 30 days from when the writ was dropped (a wonderful, archaic expression) to Election Day. Never mind that the speculation and shadow campaign had been going on for years.

In state elections, so many political reporters (and perhaps also some policy wonks) express some degree of hope that electoral politics won't interfere in the debates over budgets and gambling and other issues of the day.

Yet our actions suggest that we don't really mean it. No one wants to engage in substantive discussion. It's boring and, if taken out of context, might be misunderstood and used against people in the next election. Instead, even here in New Hampshire where we pompously consider ourselves among the most noble of civic beasts, we speculate endlessly about elections.

The next state election is more than a year away, but already one of the political parties is whispered about as being pathetic and disoriented because it doesn't seem to possess announced challengers to incumbents who hold the major offices, at least not ones who are household names.

We say we want the campaign to last a few months instead of more than a year, yet we are already antsy when well-known and well-funded candidates aren't running around and giving speeches 14 months before Election Day.

Campaigns don't have to be long and drawn out affairs. In 1996, nothing much was happening until Steve Merrill announced in April that he wouldn't run for re-election. It took a couple of months for other politicians to sort themselves out, talk to staff and organize campaigns. No one started hiring, raising money or setting up shop much before June — a bare five months before the general election.

It was wonderful. We were spared a year of insider speculation, jockeying and shadow boxing. Yet here we are nine months before that time period and many hands are being wrung in despair all around the political world. No one has declared for governor. Familiar faces that are apparently considering running for Senate or Congress have yet to decide. None has hired staff or is running an active campaign.

Can you color me happy about this revolting development? I like to gossip as much as the next pathetic political junkie about who might run, but I'm not proud of it. It is much too early to obsess about polls, elections and horse races. Elections are not about the race and the winner. They are about what happens next. Or they ought to be.

When I worked in electoral politics, I became enormously frustrated when a very effective and successful colleague said, "I don't care what these people do once they get elected, I just want the win." It was maddening because I believe the only reason to care about elections is because they affect policy choices. I don't want you to win unless it matters.

Yet the general public seems to have little potential for showing any interest in what exactly the government is doing. That seems unlikely to change anytime before we make Miley Cyrus commissioner of Health and Human Services.

None of the major races has taken shape yet. Huzzah. I hope you'll join me in rooting for longer delays and shorter races.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord. His email address is Arlinghaus@jbartlett.org.


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