Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Off and Running for President: Good News and Bad

James Skillen


June 21, 1999

Candidates seeking their parties' presidential nomination used to start their campaigns just after Labor Day. This time around, the big guns are starting shortly after Memorial Day—three months earlier. What makes them do it?

It's not because communication has slowed down. If we had no television, no Internet, and only weekly newspapers, perhaps more time would be needed to reach America's growing populace. To the contrary, we enjoy instant communication and a multitude of media. The candidates need less time, not more.

If that's not it, perhaps the candidates have much more to say about an expanding array of issues. After all, if Lincoln and Douglas needed six or more hours in their debates to make their arguments and sort out their differences, then maybe today's candidates need extra months to divulge and debate their profound philosophies and complex policy positions. Yet we know that stump speeches have become shorter and more repetitive and slogans substitute for argument. Candidates hardly need more time for this.

The real reason for the earlier start appears to be the need to gain (or not lose) an advantage in the costly winner-takes-all competition. It's like the start of a sports season: if one team begins training early, every other team needs to do the same. But whereas high school and college leagues now set the starting date for everyone, the race for president has no official starting time.

Surely the time has come for genuine electoral reform—not only campaign-finance reform—but laws to shorten the campaign season and more. However, before we jump too quickly to criticize the extended campaign, let's look on its brighter side in this insane, exorbitant-cost electoral system of ours, which truly does need radical reform.

In this era of instant communication, ordinary citizens have more opportunities than ever before to hear and participate in political debate. The longer the campaign, the longer the candidates will be responding to questions from reporters and inquiring citizens. Voters need not confine their attention to slogans and TV spots. Much more is available—more background articles and in-depth evaluations of the candidates and the issues. And by means of the Internet, it is easier to access the more valuable materials.

From this point of view, an extended campaign may be a blessing. Candidates and voters alike will have opportunities—may be forced—to go beyond slogans to substance. There is certainly a great deal of substance that should concern us: redefining the role of the United States in the world, with Kosovo, the Middle East, and China especially in view; education reform, with voucher and tax-credit experiments springing up everywhere; and welfare reform, now that Vice President Gore has joined Governor George W. Bush in support of Charitable Choice. Add to these the unsettled issues of Social Security and health-care reform, abortion and euthanasia, gay rights and gun control.

If we ask enough questions of the candidates and press them to address these issues; if we watch carefully to see whom they pick as advisers and which interest groups support them; if we look for the evidence that reveals their character, mindset, and view of public office—if we do all of this, we can cut through the slogans and superficialities to learn a great deal and to form sound judgments.

For all of this we need time, of course, and the extended campaign will give us that time. In fact, if the campaign season can be stretched even further, so it never stops, we may get the long-range, multi-faceted, public-purpose debate our country desperately needs.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”