February 9, 2007

Lengthy Campaigns

Why are American Presidential campaigns so long? Because they are national. They aren't supposed to be easy. They're supposed to be difficult. They're supposed to be tests of the candidate's endurance, organizational skills, strategic thinking, political savvy, and speaking ability. Sadly, it seems that they are more tests of endurance and fundraising than of the more directly-applicable political skills.

The article praises European countries for short campaigns and European politicians for getting their messages out. That's all well and fine, but there are some very significant differences between European politics and U.S. politics.

First of all, most European countries have parliamentary systems. The U.S. government, however, is split into a bicameral Congress with a separately-elected executive.

Second (and related) European countries have much stronger political parties. Their members tend to vote in blocs when commanded; they promote a much more uniform ideology. Republicans in the U.S. have been better at party discipline than Democrats, with the exception of Democrats on the single issue of abortion.

Third, the parties are more or less continuously advocating their platforms on various issues through parliamentary debates. Americans, however, have little stomach for extended political debate and see issues more in terms of diametric opposites, even when the real issues are about shades of gray. This is not to say that Europeans are smarter than Americans, but it is to say that the average European is somewhat more nuanced about policy (as opposed to politics) than the average American.

Fourth, there are more parties, and they have more widely divergent general philosophies and resulting platforms. The result of this is that there is a continuous, low-level campaign going on in these countries, between political leaders speaking for more or less monolithic blocs. But over here, you can't get more than three Democrats or Republicans to agree on what to order on their a pizza.

Fifth, European countries are smaller, geographically and demographically, than the United States. Italy, for instance, is smaller than California. France is already only a little bit bigger than Texas. Granted, California's campaigns are longer than European national campaigns, but again, California lacks the strong party system of European countries.

Sixth, the job of leading the United States is fundamentally different than the job of leading a European country, or even the EU (although I'm not entire sure who exactly is doing that). Most of the rest of the world takes its cues -- whether positively or negatively -- from what the U.S. does in a variety of arenas. So leading the U.S. really does mean leading the world. This doesn't mean that it's a cakewalk running, say, Greece. Far from it; I'd rather pluck out all my own nose hairs with a needle-nosed pliers than try to reform the Greek economy.

Seventh, the article suggests that American pundits and the American media enjoy great profits from the continuous campaign. This suggests that Americans have a great interest in politics (which is true) while Europeans do not (which is not true) for which Americans will pay and Europeans will not (which is nonsense). European media outlets profit from their countries' ongoing political debates just fine -- indeed, most of the media outlets in Europe are thinly-concealed partisan agitprop outlets catering to the predilections, preferences, and parties of their viewers and readers, and they make plenty of money.

Eighth, why is it such a bad thing that there be a lengthy debate about political issues in the context of selecting our leaders in the first place? It's unfortunate that we spend so much time in our campaigns concerned about things that are not important, like our politicians' extramarital affairs or pointing fingers at one another's underlings playing dirty tricks on one another. But we also wind up spending a lot of time talking about real issues, too.

Where I think Europeans have a leg up on us is that they have a wider range of options; our two-party system necessarily forces most people to make some amount of compromise in their voting. We have to not only choose between predetermined, arbitrary, and diametrically opposite sets of political agendas -- because we only have two such choices, we have to prioritize amongst items on those agendas. What's a pro-choice, low-tax, balanced-budget, civil-libertarian, environmentally-sensitive, pro-gun, pro-military, internationalist like me supposed to do? I have to decide which of those issues is most important. So ninth, we compromise more than they do in our voting patterns.

And here, we come to the tenth, final and most critical difference between a European election and an American one. Europeans elect parties. Americans elect people. After Tony Blair steps down and there's an election in the UK, Labour might win and if so, UK policy will likely not change noticeably at all from what it is now. But after Bush's term ends, even if another Republican becomes President after him, we would expect significantly different policies. A campaign, particularly a lengthy one, permits the voters to take the measure of the candidates and gauge how the politician will react to various situations if elected to office.

It's for that reason that I can comfortably be such an advocate for one Republican politician while such a critic of another -- these are very different kinds of men, and in this case I don't have to speculate about them based on their campaign behavior to take their measure. Both responded to 9/11 as leaders. One of them reacted to the planes hitting the towers by rushing to the scene, assessing and appreciating what was happening, and directing the emergency responses based upon a set of pre-planned contingency scenarios. The other got a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face and then decided to keep on reading the story about the baby goat to a handful of schoolchildren. Yes, the appropriate Federal response to the situation did eventually happen. But if there was ever a time to say, "I'm sorry kids, but something very important has come up and I'll have to finish this with you another time," that was it; instead, there was a misassessment of the situation and an inappropriate response.

So certainly it can seem silly to campaign for nearly two years. But it's important. It's not like anything else on the planet. And it's also a lot of fun.

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