It is once again time to play “piano bar” here at the ole’ blog and turn a reader question into a story...and our “request” today comes from our friend jmb who is lucky enough to be living in Vancouver, British Columbia.
She wonders why American politics is now in permanent campaign mode. She comes from a Canadian tradition of limited campaign periods, and it seems awfully strange to her that we are already thinking about 2010, 2012, and 2016 before 2008 is even decided.
Matter of fact, it seems strange to a lot of us in the US as well.
Why does it happen?
Can it be fixed?
What can we learn from 2008?
Those are the questions we’ll take on today...and with time especially short today, we need to get right to work.
In order to really get at the answers to these questions, we need to consider some of the fundamental differences between the political system in the US and Parliamentary systems, such as the one in place in Canada.
Right off the bat, Canadian Federal elections have not occurred on a regular schedule, as they do in the US (although that is about to change). Beyond that, Canadian law limits access to airtime for political campaign advertising, including advertising by third parties. Canadian law also creates defined campaign “seasons” during which electioneering can occur.
In the US, all Members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years; Senators, every six years (one-third are elected every two years). The President and State Governors are elected to four-year terms.
As a result, elections will occur at least every two years in the US.
Because the Canadian Prime Minister is not chosen by public vote, and Canadian Senators are appointed, there is only one federally elected position, the Member of Parliament.
The very essence of what we’re campaigning for is much different as well.
In Canada, and other similar countries, the goal of the Liberal Party at election time is to elect a majority of the members of Parliament from their Party (or to become the plurality, and then form a coalition Government), who will then choose a Prime Minister from among their Members. The Prime Minister runs the Executive functions of these Governments.
Every other Party in the country is trying to do the same thing at the same time.
In the US the goal of the Parties is to elect enough Members of Congress to have majorities in both Houses, so as to advance legislation...but they cannot choose who will run the Executive Branch. In some election cycles, the People also have to elect a President—and as the Obama versus Clinton battle demonstrates, the winner of that contest might not be the Party Establishment’s choice.
In the US it is common for the Presidency and the Congress to be controlled by different Parties (as it is today)—and it is also possible for the House to be controlled by one Party, and the Senate another. These situations would not occur in a Parliamentary system like Canada’s.
In some US States (California, Oregon, and Washington are three quick examples), the People may bypass the Legislature and enact laws upon their own authority through the initiative process—but doing that requires elections, as we have to vote on the various proposals. (Voters in the Canadian Province of British Columbia also have access to the initiative process.)
All that having been said, let’s start answering some questions:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
--The First Amendment to the US Constitution
Part of the reason the US has moved into a permanent campaign mode is because the First Amendment absolutely prevents any effort to limit campaign periods.
Political speech, particularly that offered to advance or oppose a candidacy or issue, is the freest of speech, and offered the greatest degree of protection under First Amendment doctrine as applied by the United States Supreme Court over the years.
Indeed, the speech in which Mrs. McIntyre engaged--handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint--is the essence of First Amendment expression... No form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection than Mrs. McIntyre's.
--McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)
The Supreme Court has ruled that restricting the amount that may be raised and spent by a campaign is unconstitutional (see Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 (1976) for more details); this is because spending to advance a candidacy or issue by a campaign is considered protected political speech.
Spending your own money to advance your own candidacy is offered the same protections—but limiting the amount of money that can be contributed by an individual to the campaign of another is permitted on the theory that reducing the corruptive effect of large donations on the political process is a government interest that outweighs the liberty interest of allowing those large donations.
(“Corporate persons” do not have the same First Amendment protections as actual people, and there are what appear to be constitutionally acceptable limits on their political activities.)
This legal theory is controversial in some circles, and you should expect the doctrine to be challenged in the future.
The current donation limits are $2300 per donor per candidate per two-year electoral cycle; and $108,200 in total contributions by one donor to all Federal candidates and PACs per biennium.
Our Constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.
--Will Rogers, in “Daily Telegram 2678”, March 6, 1935
It’s time to talk about campaigning for President.
Win or lose, there are a few things that can already be said about the Obama campaign:
Obama came from absolute obscurity in 2004 to where he is today—and he did much of it by “going around” the Democratic Party establishment, which was very much under Hillary’s control.
That meant, in four years, he had to make himself seem like a serious candidate to a public who had never heard of him; which means he had to develop a “Presidential Brand Identity” for himself despite potentially ferocious, potentially Clinton-led, resistance.
In that time he needed to create an entirely independent campaign infrastructure that was able to operate in all 50-odd primaries (every state plus the several Territories and the District of Columbia), he needed to attract influential donors and advisors...and he needed to “make the rounds”--to attend the innumerable “rubber chicken” Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce and County and State Party lunches and dinners that you have to attend in order to shake the hands of the locally important and demonstrate your Presidential “gravitas”.
When thinking about infrastructure and relationship-building, consider that Canada is a nation of roughly 30 million (a population similar to California’s), spread across 13 Provinces and Territories; and the US is a nation of 300 million, with a total of 57 States, Territories, and the Federal District. That means it takes longer to get your face out there in the US if you’re a new national candidate than it would in Canada.
To accomplish all of this took Obama the better part of four years...and in Canada, there’s a permanent Party structure that manages those relationships for the candidates they select to run—and to become Prime Minister, you really only need to persuade your own Party members and Members of Parliament to support you, making things much easier for the candidates seeking that position than it is for US Presidential candidates.
Another issue is getting on all those 50-odd ballots in the first place. A candidate has to physically file in every jurisdiction in which they wish to run—and part of the filing process is the gathering of signatures from residents of all of those locations by the candidate in order to qualify. Again, that takes time.
(For the foreign reader, the Parties cannot do this work because they do not yet know which candidate will be their nominee, and they won’t know that until the primaries actually begin later on in the process.)
Running for Congress, for a new candidate, is a similar process—you need to create your own “power base” without a Party to advance you along the way (unless you’re the incumbent or well connected in the opposition Party’s establishment), you need to find ways to finance a campaign—and to get well enough known to have a chance to win, you likely need to shake a lot of hands and do some favors, which takes time.
Meanwhile, the two Parties are trying to improve their relative positions in each House of Congress, which means even as the polls are closing each Party is thinking about how to advantage itself in the next election, which will never be more than two years away.
America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
So how can this “condition” be changed?
It probably can’t.
The most likely reform that would pass Constitutional muster would be an arrangement that required broadcasters to offer discounted or free airtime for political purposes—but it should be noted that this could only be mandated because the airwaves are publicly owned. It is unlikely cable operators could be held to the same kind of requirements, unless the contracts they operate under were to be modified from today’s norms.
Limiting access to that airtime would be much more problematic (airtime is akin to a modern “Speaker’s Corner” for Constitutional purposes), and I would not expect to see that sort of reform anytime soon.
Limiting the period of campaigning will also be exceptionally unlikely to pass Constitutional muster...and limiting campaign speech, in any other manner, will be equally tough.
Some of the same problems, ironically, might be coming to Canada. There are recommendations to move to “Mixed Proportional Representation”, which is a system where some Parliamentary candidates run “to the public” while others are selected by each Party to run on a “Party Slate”, if you will. The goal is to award seats more or less proportionately with the actual ballots cast (if your party gets 20% of the vote, for example, you should end up with roughly 20% of the seats).
We assume the “public” candidates will have to expand their “non-campaign” political activities to create interest in that Party among the larger voting public...this, because the “public” candidates are now essentially “running for two”. You might see a lot of “ribbon-cutting” appearances (“I’m proud to appear with the Mayor at the opening of this lovely new park...”) and seminars and “discussion groups” to raise public awareness and create more political “buzz”...without, of course, any actual “campaigning” taking place.
We also suspect putting elections on a schedule will increase these tendencies.
And with all that said, we have arrived at our lessons for the day: the “eternal campaign” is probably here to stay, there are Constitutional reasons that Canadian-style restrictions cannot be applied to US elections...the goals of Parties and candidates in the US and Canada are fundamentally different...and because the nominating process in the US allows anyone to win the nomination of a Party—sometimes against that party’s will—the “eternal campaign” sometimes creates a President Clinton, who appears seemingly out of nowhere.
And sometimes...a President Bush.
And what we get today...well, I guess we just wait and see...