Opinion: Downsize the American campaign season

It's endless, Kafkaesque and a historical anomaly

WASHINGTON D.C. - The model for how to run an election, I’ve come to believe, was the Papal conclave of 2013.

Pope Benedict XVI resigned on February 28, 2013. The 115 cardinal-electors convened in the Sistine Chapel on March 12. At 7:06 pm local time on March 13, the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics had a new pope, Francis I. He seems to be serving with legitimacy and honor.

Okay, so maybe papal elections aren’t technically democratic. (Picky picky.) But they are incredibly efficient and the pageantry can’t be beat.

As the world’s Catholics (did I mention they number 1.2 billion?) wrapped up their business, the American presidential campaign was just beginning – the 2016 campaign, that is. 

President Obama was sworn in for his second term in January. On February 1, Hillary Clinton left the State Department and began what we stupidly call the “unofficial” campaign. In March, all the Republican “unofficial” candidates auditioned at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

White smoke, of course, won’t emerge for another year and a half, until November 8, 2016.

There has to be a better way to run a railroading of the voters.

If papal conclaves are a smidge too medieval, consider the way it’s done in Downton Abbey land, otherwise known as the United Kingdom.

The U.K. election will be held May 7. The campaign formally began on Monday, March 30 only five weeks before the voting, after the House of Commons had been “dissolved.”

Listen to this: “When Parliament is dissolved, every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant,” according to Parliament’s official Web site. “All business in the House comes to an end. There are no Members of Parliament. MPs revert to being members of the public and lose privileges associated with being a Member of Parliament.”

Does that sound kind of like political heaven on earth? Imagine, members of Congress and Senators who “revert to being members of the public and lose privileges”.

There is nothing unusual about the U.K.’s election. America’s infinite campaigns are a giant historical and international anomaly and, I think, an atrocity.

Parliamentary systems generally allow campaigns to run for four to six weeks. The longest campaign in the history of Canada was 74 days. The recent election in Israel commenced on December 8, 2014, and the voting was completed March 17.

If you could wave a magic wand over American politics and make one big systematic change, a rational choice would be to simply shrink campaigns. At the very minimum it would reduce the amount of toxic hot air in the atmosphere. At best, it would deeply alter political culture and the vocation of politics.

Presidential campaigns became so long because of a democratizing impulse, a desire to bring more voters into the process through primaries. Then there was an arms race between New Hampshire and Iowa to have the first “first in the nation” event.

Long campaigns, it turns out, were good for business – for TV stations, cable news networks, newspapers, lobbyists, political consultants and people who write stuff like what you’re reading here.

A Political Industrial Complex was born that is the most influential, most wired special interest group of all. And a series of Supreme Court rulings deregulated the system of financing campaigns giving the Political Industrial Complex ready access to capital. The 2016 marketing marathon, aka Campaign 2016, will run a tab of about $5 billion.

What this means for office holders and seekers is that they are never out of campaign mode – and that is an obnoxious way to live and legislate. They raise money relentlessly. They complain about it, they hate it and they do it. 

There is nothing in the Constitution that recommends long campaigns. The uniform general election day, the first Tuesday of November, was established by an act of Congress. The two major political parties determine the primary schedule with state legislatures aiding and abetting their follies. The parties could shrink campaigns. It would be the first popular thing they’ve done in decades.

The smart money says our campaigns will never be shorter and a third party will never succeed. So we’re left with a Kafkaesque endless loop of battle between the same two teams, over and over, with fewer and fewer fans paying attention except for the hardcore and rabid.

I’ll take the Sistine Chapel and some white smoke.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Why Indiana's 'religious freedom' law is different ]

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