Charles Krauthammer

Perhaps. Nothing is guaranteed. But we do have the striking example of welfare reform, the most significant social advance of our time. Its political origin was the first presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, who distinguished himself from the field as a New Democrat by pledging to end welfare as we know it -- thus giving him the legitimacy within the Democratic Party to carry out so radical a reform. When serendipity presented him with the Republican Congress committed to the same objective, the reform got done.

The final function of the endless campaign, and perhaps the most psychologically important, is to satisfy the American instinct for egalitarianism. We have turned the presidential campaign into a pleasingly degrading ordeal -- pleasing, that is, to the electorate. The modern presidential campaign is meant to be physically exhausting and spiritually humbling almost to the point of humiliation. Candidates spend two years and more on bended knee begging for money, votes and a handshake in a diner.

Why do we inflict such cruel and unusual punishment? Because our winner is not just chief magistrate but king. True, the kingship is temporary, but its glories and perks are beyond compare -- the pomp and pampering of a head of state, married to the real political power of controlling the most important state on the planet.

The bargain we offer the candidate is this: We will make you Lord, circling celestially above us on Air Force One, but because we are flinty Jeffersonian yeomen, we insist that you flatter us first with a very extended show of camaraderie and commonality with the Iowa farmer, the New Hampshire alderman and the South Carolina good ol' boy. Aboriginal tribes have slightly different rituals for those who pretend to kingship, but the idea is the same: ordeal before dominion.

As a columnist whose job it is to chart every jot and tittle of these campaigns, every teapot tempest that history will remember for not one second, I curse election years. Now I have to curse the year before as well. But for all its bizarre meanderings, the endless campaign serves critical purposes.

The first two -- testing the candidates' managerial and consensus-building skills -- are undeniably useful. But like most Americans, I find it is the third -- the gratuitous humiliation of our would-be kings -- that makes it all worthwhile.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

Be the first to read Krauthammer's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.