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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Biggest, Meanest, Dumbest Campaign Ever

It's official. The events of the past week make it clear the 2008 Presidential campaign will be the biggest (most expensive), meanest and dumbest campaign ever. If you ever needed proof America needs to substantially rethink our primary systems and publicly fund campaigns, you have it now in spades.

It started with Oscar week in Hollywood, which has been transformed by a change in the schedule of the California primary from a gaudy display of nutjob celebrities patting themselves on the back for a year of horrible movies to a tacky display of politicians sucking up to nutjob celebrities for campaign dollars.

California's 2000 and 2004 primaries were held in early March as part of "Super Tuesday" with many other states. One would think that would provide enough electoral leverage for California voters to extract a few commitments from candidates in exchange for their donations. However, Californians grew frustrated after the past two Presidential campaigns because their selection of candidates had already been cut by earlier primaries in smaller states. Politicians kept calling for contributions but the winners were already apparent.

For 2008, California moved its primary to February 5, 2008 so California votes had a greater probability of playing the "kingmaker" role in each party. You only have to look at the events of Oscar week to realize this is pure fantasy. By shifting its primary up a month, California didn't give itself access to a wider selection of candidates; it actually narrowed the field without casting a single ballot. Contending in a state as large as California with three large media markets is expected to cost each candidate about $6 million dollars just to show. At least one Democratic candidate, Tom Vilsack, already saw the writing on the wall and bowed out.

So what are the consequences of this broken primary system?

Conversation about the campaign of 2008 centered for the past week on who was entitled to entertainment mogul David Geffen's millions and virtually nothing about policy or strategy. (Psssssst. Hillary -- wake up.. It's David's money, he can do whatever he pleases with it. The fact he gave some to your husband eight years ago because Bill was the lesser of two evils in 1996 doesn't entitle you to his contributions when you decide to run.)

On the February 25, 2007 edition of Meet the Press, approximately 19 minutes of the show were devoted to an interview with Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin. The other 40 minutes were spent analyzing the 2008 presidential campaign / horse race. That's a lot less work for Russert and his talking head guests. The election is twenty one months away, no one knows what will happen, it's impossible to predict so no one will be held accountable for being wrong. Perfect. Roll the ADM ad…

As summarized earlier, the 2008 race will easily be the most expensive presidential campaign ever by a wide margin. The artificially high entry hurdle into the campaign imposed by the schedule will accelerate the withdrawal of candidates who may lack the charisma to charm 121 million voters but may still have ideas worth debating. With the deck cleared of candidates with ideas left undebated, all that money left over will much more likely be spent on attack ads rather than clear communication about what each surviving candidate proposes.

By the time of the election, Americans will be thoroughly disgusted with all of the candidates and will likely know nothing substantive about their ideas or their backgrounds and the flotsam that will float into power with them should they win. The winning candidate will enter into office owing huge favors to special interests and will likely be collecting donations for the 2012 race at the entrance to the Inaugural balls.

The California example proves that attempts to tweak the primary schedule cannot solve the problem. If small states hold their primaries first, it is easier for marginal candidates to get their message heard and receive consideration, but agendas can be skewed by issues important to the early states (like the classic ethanol debate so dear to the heart of Iowa caucus voters.) If large states go first, the agenda can be skewed the other way.

Opponents of campaign finance reform would argue that candidates unable to raise $6 million to play lack the ability to win anyway, so what's the harm? Besides the tunnel vision on ideas and solutions, the other danger of a front-loaded system is that any candidate thinking of running has to spend even more time raising money earlier than ever in order to compete. The pressure is so immense that only about three weeks of focused work were extracted from the new Congress before virtually all attention of the politicians and the press has shifted to the 2008 race. The November 2008 election is TWENTY ONE MONTHS away and the press is using all the oxygen in the room on he said / she said commentary about fundraising issues. More importantly, that's twenty one months of politicians holed up with people with deep pockets, whether they be the movie star variety or corporate variety, rather than talking with the rest of us who just want to know why the Pentagon squandered $10 billion in cash in Iraq or why the Coalition of the Willing has collapsed into the Coalition of the One.

One might also argue that the current schedule of primaries over 6 months acts as a mental fitness test for all candidates so American voters can see the candidate perform under stress in the spotlight for an extended period. This might have more merit if more candidates could afford to stay in the race for the entire six months despite an early setback or two and run the whole race. As it stands, the current system is simply collapsing around the biggest early winners then letting them duck serious debate while hording cash for the attack ads in the general election.

How would publicly funded campaigns help?

Public financing should not prevent individuals from spending as much of their own money getting their message out on any media they choose. That's a limit on free speech and is of zero help or interest. However, providing public financing to candidates meeting certain minimum criteria (signatures of registered voters, public audits of their campaign books to prevent fraud) would allow more candidates to maintain a place on the rostrum before the primary election to avoid the "tunnel vision" effect induced by the current primary schedule. Public financing would also help limit the time candidates need to spend with special interests raising private funds. For candidates already in office, this would give them less reason to choose fundraising over their job and less excuse for some of the votes they cast, some of the meetings they didn't attend, and some of the briefings they didn't read.

I've suggested before that part of this public funding could be provided in the form of an extensive series of mandatory public debates addressing questions raised by citizens, not by the media. Front runners would not be allowed to skip the debate and stonewall their way through the campaign by sitting on piles of cash. They may still have the cash and spend it as they wish, but they would still have to stand in public in an unrehearsed setting and answer questions directly from voters and prove their worth.

Unless all 50 states are willing to adopt a single national primary to eliminate the skewed outcomes of a staggered schedule, public financing may be the only way to help level the playing field and eliminate the corrupting influence of the huge amounts of money required to play the current schedule.