In Praise Of The Quickie

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This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Old Europe is about to teach New America a Big Lesson. If we would only look up and notice, that is. And we won't.

If we were smart, we'd watch the United Kingdom do in 30 days what it took us Americans of ingenuity 300 days to do last year: elect a head of state. Yesterday, April 5, 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair called an election for May 5, 2005. (Technically, by the way,the Queen is head of state in the United Kingdom, not the Prime Minister, who runs the government though.)

He promptly hopped on a chopper to Weymouth and started campaigning. His main rival, Tory Michael Howard, quickly got in front of the cameras, wife on arm, and declared himself the alternative to the "smirking politics of Mr. Blair."

The race will be articulate, entertaining, witty, nasty -- and short. It will have negative ads, tracking polls, surrogates, interest groups and dirty tricks -- all the things we're told we must endure to become well informed voters. It will just be a quickie. Pip, pip, cheerio, mind the gap, please.

In even less time, the world's Catholics will select a new pope. They'll probably get the job done in three weeks. And picking a spiritual world leader with no term limits isn't exactly small potatoes.

Alright, the College of Cardinals may not be an absolutely perfect comparative model for the American Electoral College, but the point is true and clear: elections do not have to be endless. They really don't. I'll prove it.

Between 1960 and 1990, the average length of a campaign in Britain was 21.8 days, according to political scientists Randolph Stevenson and Lynn Vavreck. The Australians got it done in 27 days, the Danes in 28, the Canadians in 61 and the Italians in 60. Germany had the longest campaigns - 114 days, roughly a third of the average official American campaign that starts now in the middle of January and ends in November. The unofficial American campaign is more like 18 months.

All democracies set a maximum period between elections. In parliamentary systems, the head of state can dissolve the legislature and call for an election at any time, so elections aren't scheduled as they are here.

Ironically, it is our system that has produced a de facto perpetual election where in practical terms there is virtually no time between campaigns, especially legislative campaigns.

Parliamentary democracies don't seem to have suffered much for having concise campaigns. Their citizens are every bit as informed as American voters, more so in most of the countries, I bet. Their consultants, I believe, are able to feed their children. Their pollsters earn enough to make ends meet. Their democracies function just fine.

I suppose ours does too. But I don't know a single person (other than political reporters and consultants) who thinks our system of financing and conducting presidential campaigns brings out the best in our politicians or our country.

During the early part of the 2000 campaign, a poll by a Harvard study - aptly called the "Vanishing Voter Project" - found that 71 per cent of Americans agreed with the statement: "Politics in America is generally pretty disgusting." I think that about sums it up.

Scholars and pundits look for complex diagnoses of political turnoff: polarization, special interest money, bad media, culture war or economic inequality. While there is certainly something deeper alienating Americans from civic life, maybe we're also missing something obvious about what makes office-seeking so unappealing. Maybe it's not rocket science. Maybe campaigns are just too long. And even if that's not anything like a root cause, perhaps shortening campaigns would alleviate many nasty symptoms.

We've grown to think of campaigns without periods as unalterable, God-given facts of life, like the five-day work week. They aren't. In fact, I oppose the five-day work week. I think we can take care of business in four days - and that's my platform.

Until 1972, presidential candidates for the most part didn't start electioneering until after the summer nominating conventions. Then the parties installed open primaries and caucuses and that extended the campaign - and extended it and extended it and extended it.

The length of campaigns now is really determined by party apparatchiks and the professional political class. It's not constitutional law here. It's not written in stone.

Shorter campaigns would be cheaper. They would be less obnoxious. They would, I firmly believe, attract a better class of candidate. If you talk to politicians about campaigns, what they complain about is how relentless and undignified the groveling for money has become; long campaigns demand thick wallets. Many people - most people - don't want to submit to that.

Faster elections might also help the winners - the elected officials who make our laws (remember those guys from the olden days?) - act more like elected officials and not like perpetual candidates: scaredy-cat incumbents scheming to squeak out the next election.

Every vote now is weighed against how it might play in a thirty-second attack ad. Social Security legislation in Congress, for example, is being waged as a campaign, with advertising blitzkriegs, front groups and spin doctors.

That's the way it is. It's not the way it has to be. Just look at the Old World.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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