Time To End The Permanent Campaign

by Tony Quinn
April 19, 2005
Californians are tired of the permanent campaign. That’s the clearest message from the general lack of enthusiasm for a November 2005 statewide special election, and the fact the public is unready for the unfolding 2006 campaign season. It is a message politicians in both parties are hearing, but perhaps paying too little attention to.

Two years ago, the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis started off as something of a lark – nobody paid much attention in the early going. But then the public decided they wanted a second bite at the apple, and by the time the recall election actually took place, voters were excited and enthused. The turnout for the 2003 recall exceeded that for the 2002 regular election.

Some of that enthusiasm waned in 2004. Although the voters followed the lead of new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on ballot measures both in the spring and in the fall, there was not what you would call a great deal of enthusiasm among the voters. California did not play a role in the presidential election and the US Senate race was a snoozer, even though it involved the controversial incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In 2005, they are saying: “give us a break.” People want the politicians to do their job and stop their constant search for votes, although politicians in both parties are already in full time campaign mode.

How did we get the permanent campaign and the permanent election? Well, for one thing, politics are now a branch of entertainment – 24 hour cable TV shows, insufferable talking heads, and of course the growing industry of political consultants.

Fifty years ago most politics took place behind closed doors, and office holders governed through quiet deal making. The public only heard from them through Sunday political shows like “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation.” Now they regularly do battle in the open, on cable networks, all politics all the time.

The expense of running for office, gerrymandering, and the ideological divide in the state and nation has made the electoral side of politics far more important than the policy side.

It used to be that a candidate for governor waited “until the snows flies in the Sierras” to begin his campaign. That was the autumn before the June primary. Tell that to State Treasurer Phil Angelides who began his campaign for governor the day Gov. Schwarzenegger was sworn into office in 2003. His opponents are now playing catch-up, and it is more than a year until voters actually go to the polls to choose nominees in 2006.

Term limits also play a big role in the permanent campaign. Prospective candidates know when a district will open up. The March 2005 California Target Book lists 12 of 20 State Senate seats and 34 of 80 Assembly districts that will be open in 2006 because of term limits. More than 80 candidates have already filed statements of intent with the Secretary of State to run for these districts. Dozens more have made known their desire or plans to run.

Most open 2006 districts are safely Democratic districts, many in Los Angeles County. That means candidates will need only to worry about the June primary election. So in March 2005, candidates are lining up for an election that occurs in June 2006 with the prospect of taking office in December 2006 – more than a year and a half from now.

So much for waiting until the “snow flies in the Sierra.” Our political system encourages longer and longer campaigns, for which the voters show less and less interest, and that in turn means you must raise more and more money to get the attention of an exhausted and disinterested electorate.

Can anything be done to reverse the permanent campaign? Maybe. Legislators seem to do less that really affects people’s lives, and the constant fund raising and political musical chairs absorbs more and more of their time, while the public sees unbalanced budgets, roads unrepaired, schools falling apart, and little attention to long range problems.

Maybe one fine day they will decide we just don’t need such well-paid legislators in Sacramento and go for a ballot measure to reduce the legislature to part time and cut its pay. If we reach that point, the politicians will have only themselves to blame.

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