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DICKERSON: The long road to the White House

• Dec 29, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Editor’s note: As 2016 draws to a close, we're looking back at the opinions we shared over this tumultuous year. In this piece, originally published Jan. 2, columnist Brian Dickerson lamented the painful longevity of the American election cycle.

The good news is that the 2016 presidential campaign is halfway over.

The bad news is that the 2016 election is still nearly a year away, condemning those who fail to take refuge on another planet to 44 more weeks of vitriolic rhetoric, deceptive advertising and intrusive efforts to measure their response to every burp, thrust and quarter-turn.

Why do we permit this torture to continue — and even encourage the combatants to engage in ever-more-protracted preliminaries, until the Super Bowl pregame show looks like a model of restraint?

America became a superpower by learning to do things faster and more efficiently than they could be could be done elsewhere. So how did the modern presidential campaign become the object of international derision — a living, breathing testament to the assertion that more is less?

If you suppose that our marathon presidential campaigns are unique — that no other democratic nation tolerates such a profligate waste of its government’s time and money — you guessed right.

Canada, our closest neighbor, can schedule a parliamentary election and choose a new prime minister in the interval between two American presidential debates. The typical parliamentary campaign lasts only a few weeks; the longest in Canadian history, in 1926, spanned just 74 days.

National campaigns in Israel are over in six months, with TV and movie theater advertising forbidden in the 30 days preceding Election Day. German campaigns run an average of six weeks, and the efficient Japanese confine the process of choosing a new national government to just 12 days.

No two counties observe exactly the same electoral rules or traditions. But a handful of common features appear to account for the difference between other democracies’ election cycles and our own, seemingly unbounded presidential campaign season:

Limits on time: In many countries, the length of the campaign is defined by law. Often, there are also blackout periods in which televised or broadcast appeals to the electorate are prohibited or limited.

Limits on spending: Another way to abbreviate the length of a campaign is to cap what candidates and/or political parties are permitted to spend during an election cycle.

Canada, France, Israel and Japan are among a dozen major democratic nations that enforce strict limits on both the amount donors may give and the amount office-seekers may spend. Another half-dozen, including the United Kingdom, cap only the latter.

Public financing: In the U.S., even politicians who haven't decided whether to seek the presidency spend an enormous amount of time raising money, both for their own campaigns and those of their political allies. In countries where political campaigns are largely subsidized by taxpayers — Norway, where political parties derive two-thirds of their income from such subsidies, is a premier example — elected officials are free to spend more time governing and less time shaking down donors.

Limits on campaign spending and limits on the length of the campaign itself interact in a virtuous cycle of political restraint. Countries that enforce a cap on either variable tend to reap a corresponding reduction in the other.

So it’s little surprise that the country with the world’s longest election season, the U.S., also turns out to be the country that allows virtually unlimited expenditures by, and on behalf of, its candidates and political parties.

A long line of Supreme Court decisions have stymied bipartisan efforts to restrain spending on American presidential campaigns. The most notable include Buckley v. Valeo, in which justices declared that limiting what candidates could spend was as forbidden under the First Amendment as censoring what they could say, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 ruling that sanctioned virtually unlimited expenditures by independent groups whose membership and objectives frequently remain secret.

Opinion polls consistently indicate that a majority of U.S. voters find the 21st Century presidential campaign too long. But the American system may be more democratic, too, giving primary voters in each state an important role in the candidate-selection process party leaders used to dominate, and continue to control in many parliamentary democracies.

Primaries and caucuses played a negligible role in the presidential nominating process before World War II, and their emergence as the principle means of selecting the major parties’ nominees has allowed a long list of relatively obscure candidates, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to claw their way to national prominence.

But if American voters enjoy a greater opportunity to participate in the presidential election process, the reality is that a decreasing proportion of them are exploiting it. Instead of arousing the electorate’s interest and enthusiasm, the elongation of presidential campaigns has had a dampening effect, depressing turnout and party affiliation.

In addition to democratizing the nominating process, the rise of the primary has given early primary states outsize influence, prompting others to move up their own primaries and forcing candidates to line up donors and staff years before a general election. The profusion of cable news networks and websites scrapping for any morsel of political news assures that more and more of this preliminary maneuvering takes place in public, fueling the impression (or perhaps merely the recognition) that the election cycle no longer has a beginning or an end.

In short, it’s hard to argue that either the public or the individual candidates seeking their votes derive much advantage from an ever-more-drawn-out campaign cycle. The more obvious beneficiaries are third-party donors (on whom both the major parties and individual candidates are increasingly dependent) and the ever-growing number of businesses and professionals (journalists, pollsters, campaign consultants, election law specialists and, of course, lobbyists) that sustain themselves on the perpetual campaign gravy train.

Probably this is not what the Framers had in mind when they contrived to fashion, in the words of James Russell Lowell, a machine that would go of itself. But like the war on drugs, the modern presidential campaign seems to have morphed into an institution that is more interested in making a payroll than in perfecting the democratic process.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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