A Few Kind Words For The New Campaign Calendar
Though I will often quarrel with David Broder’s policy conclusions, his judgments on the dynamics of presidential politics should be taken very seriously. He is in his fifth decade of following would-be presidents around, and that’s a lot of experience. Broder combines that experience with a superb command of the written word, and the effect can often be to silence opposing views.
In yesterday’s Washington Post Broder argued that the latest evolution of the presidential campaign calendar is a very bad one. (Among his descriptions: “truly insane,” and “bizarre.”) The shouting will be over, Broder suspects, by the end of February, 2008, and perhaps even earlier. As California, Florida, Illinois and Texas rush to advance their primaries to within a few days of the New Hampshire contest and a few weeks from the Iowa caucuses, the odds grow of the two nominees being settled a mere year from now and thus almost nine months before their November, 2008 show-down. The result? “[A] numbingly long general election campaign: a nine-month marathon that leaves contenders and voters exhausted.”
The fears the dean of the D.C. punditocracy harbors are of the good government sort –what if the nominee hasn’t really been tested, isn’t the best candidate, or stumbles badly after the prize is won? Add in the fatigue factor --the public will get bored, turn off the noise, tune out politics—and some will be persuaded that it has all gone very badly indeed.
Perhaps. But perhaps something else is in store. Perhaps there is some very good news at work here.
First, and for the first time in a long time, the big states are truly in the business of helping to nominate the president. California has no claim to a collectively superior political instinct than any other of the states, but it does make a candidate work hard to understand a set of issues from illegal immigration to port security to air quality and the entertainment industry’s economic dynamics than any other state simply because of its behemoth size. The would-be nominees are going to have to get deeper into their briefing books than ever before. That’s a good thing as it will show us which of the runners has the capacity and willingness to master a set of issues at least approaching the number he or she will be called upon to handle for the fall campaign and beyond. I’m glad Iowa obliges them to study ethanol. I am happier that a Golden State primary is going to make them consider the impact on health care and public education of millions of illegal aliens.
The compressed calendar also helps devalue the big media’s role while empowering new media. Yes, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina will have significant impacts on the outcome of the big state showdowns, and the free media will be crucial to victory in one or more of them. But not only will the MSM will be spread as thin as the candidates in early ‘08, the need to reach all the big markets in the big states is going to make access to the blogs and talk radio a big deal. Every candidate will need to be scoping out now the AM drive time talkers in the big cities as well as the widely read state blogs if they are going to stay alive in the new calendar. The time in which the old king makers will have to make their plays will not only be greatly diminished, it will be split between the GOP and Democratic slug fests and like the general campaign, will have to be covered in terms the candidates will set via their travel schedule and their speeches.
The candidates will also be displaying for us their abilities to confront and master new and complex fact sets changing at pace not seen in previous cycles. They will be making decisions of huge consequence under conditions not favorable to the slow witted or the overrated. (If Joe Biden manages to recover from his hapless start and survives his almost Energizer Bunny-like determination to put his foot in his mouth, he will be the most fun to watch after New Hampshire and before the big primaries.)
And perhaps, just perhaps, if the smoke clears and two candidates from the same party both have a couple of wins, we will get a great series of subsequent debates about the crucial issues of our time between only the serious contenders.
Given the compressed calendar, the early start to Campaign ’08 was not only inevitable, it is welcome. The candidates almost have to engage in repeated appearances before the new and old media, prepared to answer all questions and to accept most serious debate invitations. Trying to run a front porch campaign when the gun announcing the start of the sprint has already gone off not only mixes metaphors, it nixes chances. The public that is interested will get its fill. Those that aren’t have an endless set of choices in which to invest their attention span.
A short season of decisive political clashes will tell us a lot about these candidates, as will the long run-up to the few weeks of voting. Then we will all take a break and a breath and get out scorecards on which to make notes and judgments.
It is the most important job in the world in an era of unprecedented risks. Making the next president work hard to be ready for January 2009 seems to me to be an excellent idea.