Only Two Years to Go

On Monday, California Senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president of the United States.

It’s the exact midpoint of the Trump administration, a tad early to launch a run for the White House — in 2020 — but Harris is not the first to do so.

Julian Castro announced last weekend. (Before you start asking “Julian who?” he’s the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas. And yes, he knows it’s a long shot, but like he said, “I am not a frontrunner in this race, but I have not been a frontrunner at any time in my life.” That alone should be worth a spot in the 2020 debates.)

Besides the official wannabes, there’s a not-inconspicuous crowd of unofficial wannabes: Senators from Massachusetts and New York respectively, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have set up exploratory committees (comes with a built-in exit strategy if public reaction is of the “who cares?” variety; if they don’t care, the candidate can claim she was just exploring, and embarrassment is minimal).

Others on the verge of going presidential include, in alphabetical order:

  • Former vice president Joe Biden; former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg;
  • Cory Booker, junior senator from New Jersey;
  • Sherrod Brown, senator from Ohio; Amy Klobuchar,
  • Senior senator from Minnesota;
  • Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, reportedly hot, coming off a defeat in the Texas race for senator against Ted Cruz;
  • Bernie Sanders, who has been in political office in some form or other since he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981.

How many of these will drop out — staggering back into non-presidential oblivion like exhausted marathon runners — and how many more politicians, entrepreneurs, celebrities and uncategorizables will enter the campaign over the next two years, remains to be seen.

There are, generally speaking, two types of reaction to this news: groans, from those who dread the fatuity of it, the expense of it, the endlesslessness of it; and bright-eyed fascination from professional and amateur political enthusiasts alike, who revel in the feverish competition, the polls, debates, gaffes and scandals that make up the hoopla of a presidential year — uh, two years.

Each side has good reason to be for or against such a spectacle. Those who are for it argue that it’s more than just a collective ego trip for the candidates and a way to earn a living for campaign strategists, pundits and pollsters.

They say it’s good for democracy. The primaries, which significantly extend the electoral season, give ordinary people more of a say in the nomination of candidates than did the old smoke-filled rooms.

Furthermore, it gives voters a fuller opportunity to get to know the candidates and (hopefully) study the issues before making up their minds. The American system has often been compared unfavorably to the much shorter, more civilized election process in countries such as Canada and Britain.

But the comparison isn’t fair, since those are parliamentary systems, where elections can be called at almost a moment’s notice following a vote of no-confidence, and the people vote more for a party than a person — whose shenanigans (otherwise known as a platform or program) are already familiar.

By contrast, in the presidential system, the candidate is everything, and it takes time to find out where, say, Julian Castro stands on such far-away-from-San Antonio-places like Syria and the People’s Republic of China.

After a long campaign, though, American voters are plausibly better informed about the candidacies than their counterparts in Canada or Britain.

Indeed, the very length of the campaign has been put forward as a recommendation. No one really knows how a candidate will hold up under the extraordinary pressures of the presidency. The rigors of the primaries and the general campaign give the country a chance to see how the candidates perform under constant national scrutiny, possibly the closest thing to the kind of scrutiny that a president must live with day and night for four years.

Put another way, the long campaign is a test of stamina. If they can survive two years of this, they can survive anything. A better proof of physical fitness for the office than a medical report, in which medical problems can be concealed (case in point, John F. Kennedy).

On the other side, the financial output entailed by two years of campaigning — including expensive mass media ads, staff payrolls, travel costs (those who don’t own private planes rent or buy them) — make it unaffordable, unless the candidate is rich (see Bloomberg) or has the backing of the rich. This uncomfortable truth means that special interests inevitably operate behind the scenes and are liable to have special influence over whoever gets elected. Shorter campaigns would be less susceptible to the monied interests.

There is also evidence that this is what the people want. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that by July 2016, six in 10 Americans were already sick and tired of the presidential campaign, with four months yet to go. Another survey, sponsored by the American Psychological Association, said the campaign had become a source of stress in many people’s lives.

So perhaps the time has come to consider changing the system. To do away with the existing madness altogether does not seem possible, at least not by any legislative act. Such an attempt to impose limits on the right of a candidate to have his voice heard — for two years if she so wishes — would be a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

But ways could be found to discourage the endless campaign for president. Possibly a change in the time and method for filing papers to run for office.

Another approach would be to ignore them. If few will show up for their rallies, if news outlets allotted less time and space to campaign coverage at this early date, the candidates would probably take the hint and scale it back.

Wouldn’t they?