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Monday, January 2, 2012

On the U.S. Presidency: The Campaign “Season”

The overextension, or hypertrophy, of one part of a governmental system—whether a level, branch or even a particular office—can be seen in the overemphasis alone of the process by which it is filled. Whether obsessed over or merely elongated, the selection process can come to take on a life of its own. Indeed, it could even eclipse governing. If, in referring to a particular office that has a four year term, one expects a window of only a year or perhaps two for governing before the selection process revs up again, then there is reason to suspect that the office has too much power in the system of government. Of course, it could also be that the selection process is simply flawed, but why then would so many people either tacitly approve it or even maintain that it is necessary.

In the context of the Iowa caucuses, which formally kick off the nomination process for the U.S. presidency—after at least six months of media-complicit campaigning and debates during which candidates rise and fall without a single vote being cast—the vested interests in Iowa defend the value, even necessity, of what is essentially, “Me first! Listen to me, watch me!” What is mentioned in the media as an aside, if at all, is the small fact that Iowa’s delegates to the parties’ nominating conventions are selected months later at a state convention. The selection of delegates is not a reflection of the popular vote. One would not suspect this from all the attention given to the “results” on caucus night. In actuality, the value of the results is basically in giving the first snapshot of what some voters in one small, unrepresentative state feel about the various candidates. While preferable to having pundits misinterpret polls in order to grab headlines by elevating some candidates while effectively marginalizing or even pushing others out well before any votes are cast, the Iowa caucuses are a straw poll of sorts, whose value is largely perceptual. Considering that the Iowa straw poll, which occurs about six months before the caucuses, can be far off the mark as a predictor of their results—much less of who is actually nominated by the two major parties (e.g., 2011-2012)—we might want to reassess the value of the caucuses even as little polls.

I contend that the overemphasis of the “first in the nation” caucuses, far beyond their significance even to the parties’ eventual nominating conventions in Iowa, stems from the overemphasis of the office of the U.S. presidency itself. Whether the power of that office had grown too much through roughly the last three-quarters of the twentieth century or the media and the people have built up too much “personality hype” surrounding the office, to obsess over its selection process from even midway through the four year term is at the very least excessive. Most significantly, the sheer length of the campaign “season” can compromise or even thwart the governing. In other words, we are treating a means with at least one end. We do not select a president so he (or she) can turn around and start campaigning for re-election. Perhaps we should not even allow presidential second-terms, though we would still have the multi-year campaign “season.”

In short, I contend that the way in which the two major American political parties nominate their respective candidates for the office of the U.S. president is deeply flawed, if not broken. Moreover, the entire campaign “season” is entirely too long, and growing longer—at least as of 2012. Coincidentally (or not!), the commercial Christmas, or “Holiday” (since we prefer to refer to that particular national holiday generically) season was also being pushed further back into November and even October with our tacit approval (or at least not confronting offending retailers). Another national holiday, Thanksgiving, which is on the third Thursday in November, has come to be eclipsed or slighted in a way that is similar to how governance comes to be relegated or even ignored as the cameras turn to the “upcoming” campaign. After months of daily coverage even before the Iowa caucuses, the media proclaim that the campaign season is about to begin. How, one might wonder, can a journalist make such a statement with a straight face? You have been covering the race every day for at least six months, maybe longer! About to begin?  Haven’t you been paying attention to even what you have been doing? Nobody can be that stupid. One can reasonably wonder, therefore, whether it is in the interest of some power behind the scenes that the presidential campaign be turned into a business in its own right, or for some other purpose to be served that would be put at risk were the fiction uncovered and the system fixed.

Of course, as I allude to above, all of the attention paid to the presidential campaigning could be due to the increased power of the office itself. In his book on the presidency, Arthur Schlesinger refers the inordinate power of the office as “the imperial presidency.” The presidency, which includes the role of commander in chief, gained power from World War II to the Vietnam War in part due to what can be termed the “cycle of influence” involving the increasingly powerful military-industrial complex. In general terms, the increasing amount of money being “donated” to successive presidential campaigns suggests that at least some wealthy donors view the office as being sufficiently powerful to warrant the higher investment in influence.

One should not expect a candidate for president to campaign on reducing the powers of the presidency. At the very least, such a platform would suffer from a rather obvious conflict of interest. According to the International Herald Tribune’s 2012 New Year’s edition, even the “limited government” Republican candidates for president held “expansive views about the scope of the executive powers they would wield if elected—including the ability to authorize the targeted killing of U.S. citizens they deem threats and to launch military attacks without congressional permission.” Most of the candidates saw “the commander in chief as having the authority to lawfully take extraordinary actions if he decides doing so is necessary to protect national security.” This view would turn out to be convenient should any of those candidates become president.

The military rise of the U.S. around the world since World War II—even fighting two wars at once in the first decade of the twenty-first century!—has made the American presidency more powerful in absolute terms as well as relative to the other offices, branches and even levels of government in the United States. This trend is particularly dangerous because it is difficult to hold a president accountable. Making reference to the preceding “decade of disputes over the scope and limits of presidential authority,” which itself could have been a reaction to its increase, the Tribune points out that “executive branch actions are often secret and courts rarely have jurisdiction to review them.” We are lucky there have not been more “slicky Dick” Nixons occupying the White House. So the conventional wisdom is that the candidates must be thoroughly vetted, even if by the pundits and press instead of being willowed down by the voters closer to the election (i.e., within the same year!). Fear can be a powerful motivator in “staying the course” in the status quo.

The sheer duration of the presidential election cycle, plus the seemingly consequential Iowa caucuses being its first snapshot by some of the electorate, is said to be valuable, even necessary. This claim is a galaxy away from my perspective that the selection process is fundamentally flawed as well as broken. How is it that European campaign season—admittedly on the state level but the states play a larger role at the E.U. level than their American counterparts do at the U.S. level—is only a few months? Do the Americans make better decisions on account of the longer duration and related additional attention? Typically, any possible “constitutional moment” wherein the general public focuses on a major matter of governance or policy during the campaign is quickly eclipsed by the report that someone called someone else a bad name. As if by instinct, we feel we need to hear what the other guy said in reply, so we are hooked, like addicts, totally unaware of the opportunity costs both in terms of substantive public debate and in our own lives, which I submit should not be lived vicariously through a soap opera of bad actors willing to go on and on if it will get them the power they crave. So, finally, it can be asked whether they are worth all of the time we give them. Maybe if the office were not so powerful, or if structural changes were made to how a person is selected as president, we might get a break from the seemingly unending series of reports on the campaigns.

We do not even know that the U.S. Constitution mandates the Electoral College as a way to check excess democracy ironically by making use of elected representatives. The state legislatures were to appoint the electors who would then vote by state to elect the president. Even though the U.S. House was to be the repository of popular election in the U.S. Government and the Electoral College was meant to check excess democracy (e.g., the impact of momentary passions) for our own good, American citizens living long before the twenty-first century made the electors in each state subject to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in the state. In other words, the system is not only out of control; it was never designed to function as a multi-year electoral “season.” Even so, it goes on as if nothing were wrong—even as if the status quo were being worshipped, in effect. At the very least, to be comfortable with a broken status quo indicates that something is wrong societally—with us.  To admit that it is broken but be resigned to it is almost to deserve it. It is as though the United States is so big, as an empire of fifty republics comparable to European states, that only the sheer mass of its inertia can fuel its momentum. No other force, even from within, dares challenge the powerful vested interests who insist not only that the system is working, but that it must! We in turn do not question, really. We are so accustomed to going along with the status quo, as if its mere operation meant it is viable, that we hardly even notice.

On a clear, sunny day in early 2012, a century after the Titanic sank, few if any Americans were viewing the presidential contest then going on as fundamentally broken; the attention was on the personalities running. It is as if American society itself were unconsciously flirting with an iceberg ahead, sipping tea oblivious to the danger—or stranger still, looking straight at the mass of ice ahead while pausing to rearrange the deck chairs as if to get the best view. No need to report the sight or figure out a change of course. As the Iowa caucuses demonstrate, it is important to be first—sitting in front. This is ironic in lands so filled with Churches (even in the campaigns). Being able to secure one’s place means the system is working—serving the good of the whole, the public good.

Click to view comments or post one on the presidential election campaign season.
See related essay: “Picking a President by Polls

Charlie Savage, “Limited Government But Far-Ranging Presidency,” International Herald Tribune, December 31, 2011-January 1, 2012.  http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx