Farah Stockman

Campaigning against campaigning

ack in the days of the Founding Fathers, presidential candidates didn’t even campaign for themselves because self-promotion was considered unseemly.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Back in the days of the Founding Fathers, presidential candidates didn’t even campaign for themselves because self-promotion was considered unseemly.

I’M ABOUT to admit something incredibly personal and embarrassing. I don’t really want to. I would much rather hide it. But people are starting to suspect. It’s better to come right out and say it, so that I have a chance of getting help.

I’m sick.


Of this election.


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I first started noticing symptoms a few weeks ago when I had a temporary memory lapse about exactly which Republican candidate was surging in the polls.

Then my fingers wouldn’t stop twitching during the last debate - until I turned the channel. I ended up watching a documentary about cannibalistic insects that I found just as interesting.

That was when that I had to acknowledge that I’m suffering from CFS - Campaign Fatigue Syndrome.


My only comfort is that I’m not alone. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 70 percent of respondents can’t wait for the race to be over, compared to 26 percent who are excited that it is just beginning.

It seems that we Americans can’t wait for our airwaves to stop talking about Herman Cain’s sex life - and get back to more important issues. Like Kim Kardashian’s sex life.

Or maybe we all know deep-down inside that too much of a good thing can hurt you. As much as we love our democracy, there is such a thing as election overdose.

Look at Iraq. In five years, Iraq held two national elections. But did the government get better? It arguably got worse. If people don’t have enough time in office, they can’t get anything done. When leaders are constantly jockeying for power, they don’t accomplish much else.

That certainly can be said of the United States. During campaign season, the business of governing becomes simply the business of getting reelected. The president has to spend an inordinate amount of time campaigning and fundraising, rather than solving the problems of the country.

Courageous risks - like steps towards Middle East peace - are put on hold. Important confirmations - like federal judges - are frozen. The word goes out in Congress: “Don’t sign on to the other party’s bill because you don’t want to make them look good.’’

Americans are uniquely vulnerable to all this. No other country in the world expects its politicians to run for reelection as frequently, to campaign as long, or raise as much money on their own, according to British political scientist Anthony King, who wrote “Running Scared: Why America’s Politicians Campaign Too Much and Govern Too Little.’’

As much as we love our democracy, there is such a thing as election overdose.

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It’s not that American politicians are bad people, King writes. It’s that the system is set up so that they must think about their reelections almost from the moment they get into office. No other country has a primary system like ours, in which candidates of the same party have to duke it out in a multi-stage tournament-style blood sport of wit, luck, and sheer endurance.

To last through the primary and the general election, presidential hopefuls have to start quietly raising money years in advance. Which means their rivals have to start even earlier to try to raise even more money. The result is an electioneering arms race.

That’s why the 2008 presidential campaign season lasted nearly two years and cost $5.3 billion. By contrast, the last campaign season in Britain lasted just one month.

The result is a US system that rewards mastery of politics rather than policy, short-term schemes rather than long-term vision, ties to monied special interests rather than the community one serves.

The result is too many ads and too much airtime over too many months, all aimed at a public that has never been so disgusted with its politicians.

All this makes me wonder: What if we had fewer presidential elections? What if we freed the president from the pressures of politics? What if we had a single six-year presidential term?

The Founding Fathers considered this idea at the Constitutional Convention back in 1787. (Thomas Jefferson initially favored a seven-year term.) But in the end, they decided against it. Six or seven years is too long for a bad president to be in office, they reasoned. Besides, the hope of reelection is a good incentive for a president to be on his best behavior.

But that was back before the 24-hour news cycle. Before candidates subjected the public to dozens of televised debates. Before the primaries even existed. Back before CFS became an epidemic.

Back then presidential candidates didn’t even campaign for themselves because self-promotion was considered unseemly.

If we brought that idea back, I just might be cured.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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