We live in the age of the permanent campaign. Almost seven years into his presidency, Bill Clinton remains in full campaign mode, and a year before the 2000 election the presidential campaign is already many months old (some would argue it began in 1996, with Al Gore’s speech at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago). Campaigns are nonstop and year-round, and governing is intimately linked to the campaigns in a continuous loop. Campaign consultants move without pause from the campaign trail to work for the victorious elected officials, helping to shape their policy messages and frame issues for advantage in the next campaign. Legislative proposals, routinely subject to intense polling and focus groups before they are launched, are monitored by tracking polls thereafter. Outside groups run advertising campaigns that are indistinguishable from electioneering.
Private groups orchestrate legal challenges to laws they oppose, sue government and their adversaries, and use the discovery process to troll for politically embarrassing revelations about their opponents. Party leaders and other elected officials devote more and more of their energies to building campaign war chests, which both distracts from and shapes their governing responsibilities. Reporters increasingly cover policy battles in Congress and the White House as campaigns, with the focus on who is winning and losing and not on the stakes involved. Campaigning is governing is campaigning.
It was not always so. For most of American history, campaigns generally were confined to the latter half of election years, and when the campaign ended, the governing began—after a lengthy transition interval. Policymakers knew that campaigns could and often would be rough-and-tumble, even harsh, contests but accepted as a matter of course that once the campaigns were over, erstwhile adversaries would often be allies. Campaign bitterness was generally confined to one’s opponent, not all the members of his or her party. The day after the election, campaign materials were put away, as Christmas lights are boxed and returned to the attic after the holidays, and the tools and personnel for governing emerged.
The Bad New Days?
America is not going to return to that bygone era. The hundreds or thousands of campaign consultants, public relations firms, political pollsters, issue advocacy organizations, party campaign committees, and congressional leadership campaign organizations will not disappear quietly or fade away. Journalists will not easily stop covering campaigns and policy negotiations alike as though they were horse races.
This is not to suggest that everything about our political process in earlier days was good, much less that everything about today’s politics is bad. The permanent campaign has not kept Americans from throwing incumbent administrations out of office, showing their displeasure with policy directions, and signaling their desire for change. But we have paid a price for the transcendence of campaigning over governing. One part of the price has come in public cynicism and disengagement. Less than half the voting-age population cast a ballot in the last presidential election, almost 14 percentage points below the turnout in 1960. Moreover, the youngest cohorts— striking disengagement from politics promises even lower turnout rates in the future.
Contemporary election campaign practices, including attack ads with nasty, inaccurate, or unfair charges, have left millions of Americans manifestly dissatisfied with the electoral process and disposed to assume the worst about those who compete for their attention and votes. Media coverage of presidential campaigns, especially on local television news programs, has shrunk in recent cycles, and much of what is provided does little to engage or inform ordinary citizens.
Most importantly, campaigning seems increasingly antithetical to governing. Parties and individual officeholders routinely manipulate the policy process to gain tactical advantage in the next election. And candidates often frame campaign themes and take positions in ways that frustrate rather than facilitate the task of governing after the election. Campaigning intrinsically is a zero-sum game, where there is a winner and a loser. Governing ideally is an additive game, where a broad policy coalition lets many on all sides declare victory. The more campaigning absorbs governing, the more difficult coalition-building becomes.
Combating Public Cynicism
Widespread criticism of campaign practices and coverage has prompted a good deal of soul-searching within the media and efforts by reform groups to improve public deliberation in presidential elections. But changing today’s system will require more than pious exhortation. As the Task Force on Campaign Reform reported recently, “candidates want to win elections, journalists want to exercise their craft, media executives want to earn profits, citizens want to be informed and entertained and see the ‘right’ candidate win.” Proposals for improving the practice and coverage of presidential campaigns must serve the interests of these key actors if they are to have any chance of being adopted and sustained.
The early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign provide some basis for encouragement that the dialogue will be fruitful. Despite plenty of horse race, campaign tactics, and scandal coverage during 1999—and ample cynicism and hype on the talk news shows—the press has already provided substantial information about the major candidates, including their backgrounds, records, and positions, and the major themes of their campaigns. They have also done a good job combing the policy agenda, as defined by both experts and ordinary citizens. A crucial test is whether they will be willing to repeat this information, in clever and insightful ways, when potential voters are paying more attention to the campaign.
But even if they do, something will be missing. Voters could well find this material about the candidates in more accessible and entertaining formats and still lack crucial information for making their decision. And presidential candidates could engage in a most impressive form of public deliberation on the issues and yet be utterly unprepared to assume the responsibilities of office and put in place a realistic plan for governing. What would be missing in both cases is a clear sense of how the presidential candidates would govern if elected.
Preparing to Govern
Strikingly underplayed in the conduct and coverage of presidential campaigns is the host of questions about governing that become absolutely central the day after the election—to the president-elect and his key advisers, to the new Congress, to the pool of candidates for high-level political appointments, and to the same journalists who largely avoid those questions during the campaign—not to mention to the citizens waiting to see how the election now concluded will influence their lives.
We do not intend to emphasize process over substance or to suggest that universal principles of governance apply equally to all newly elected presidents. Presidencies are shaped by the personal qualities and policy agendas of presidents as well as by the broader political, economic, social, and security context in which they operate. But variations in strategies of governance are no excuse for an absence of forethought about which strategies are most appropriate and offer some reasonable chance of success. These considerations deserve a full airing during the campaign.
We provide here a series of questions about governance that should be raised during the upcoming campaign—by candidates with their opponents, by citizens in town meetings, by debate sponsors in planning major televised events, and by journalists in interviews and background stories—all done in a way that serves the interests of candidates, citizens, and the media, and most important, the interests of governing in America.
1. Questions about the transition
Candidates for the presidency do not talk about how they will prepare to govern, fearing it presumptuous to plan for a transition before being elected. This reluctance to plan has increasingly slowed the start of new administrations, who waste precious weeks between the election and the inauguration because of a lack of forethought about shaping the new White House and presidential team. Transition planning is not presumptuous. Indeed, candidates who fail to make concrete preelection provisions for governing are lacking in seriousness of purpose.
The task of staffing a new administration is staggering: more than 6,000 presidential appointments, including roughly 600 Senate-confirmed cabinet and subcabinet members, 600 noncareer members of the Senior Executive Service, another 1,500 Schedule C personal and confidential assistants, hundreds of federal judges, and several thousand members of advisory boards and commissions. The average tenure of presidential political appointees has been steadily declining and is now barely 14 months. If appointments are not made well before the inauguration, they can be delayed for months into the presidency, creating uncertainty in agencies and gaps in policymaking. A strategy, process, and early start are essential for smooth and responsive policymaking and administration.
2. Questions about agenda
A smooth, quick start is key to a successful presidency. Of course, each new administration faces a unique set of political and policy possibilities that emerge from the particular campaign and election results. But presidents-elect have not always thought through the contingencies and related them to an initial strategy for governing, in part because they are seldom asked about these matters before Election Day. And that has occasionally led them to miscalculate what can be accomplished early in their administrations and how best to proceed.
3. Questions about relations with Congress
Most plausible scenarios for the 2000 elections would leave both houses of Congress with narrow majorities, even if the presidential outcome is lopsided, which seems unlikely. The new president may well lead a unified party government, but an exclusive reliance on partisan majorities is likely to founder in the face of the multiple veto points in the U.S. political system. Yet building bipartisan majorities in Congress is much more difficult now that the center of gravity in each party has shifted to its ideological pole. And members of Congress are more likely to hear from activists and donors who reinforce the ideological polarization of the parties. Grappling with these forces is one of the biggest challenges facing the new president.
4. Questions about governing in the era of the permanent campaign
We have entered an era in which politicians must campaign to govern and govern by campaigning. It will do no good to try to obliterate the elements of our politics, communications, and culture that contribute to this phenomenon. Some reforms may help, but they will not perform miracles. Potential presidents as well as journalists and citizens need to think through and talk through the implications of this permanent campaign and explore how it can be exploited or adapted to serve broader public purposes. Successful presidents must adapt their policies and strategies to the environment of the permanent campaign.
5. Questions about foreign policy decisionmaking
The assumption of bipartisan support for foreign policy is no longer operative in the post—Cold War era. Foreign policy increasingly has come to resemble domestic policy in its political dynamics. Beyond an ambiguous and unenthusiastic internationalism, little agreement exists on the appropriate ends and means of American foreign policy. Deep-seated differences, often cutting across the usual ideological and partisan boundaries, exist on a wide range of international matters, including the role of multilateral institutions, the place of labor and environmental standards in trade negotiations, the conditions justifying humanitarian military intervention, the centrality of human rights in dealings with China, and the nature of our economic and political engagement with Russia. The temptation, in a permanent campaign mode, is for candidates to exploit these differences for ideological or partisan advantage, without regard for the consequences for managing an effective foreign policy.
6. Questions about reform
There is no panacea here, but the possible areas for constructive structural change are legion: pre-election transition planning, the number of political appointees and the structure of executive management, early orientation and training for political appointees, the speed, breadth, and nature of security clearances for top officials, the rules for hiring and firing civil servants, campaign finance laws, ethics and financial disclosure requirements, the budget process, the national security policy apparatus, and the application of fast-track provisions in Congress to additional policy arenas.
Whether these questions can be insinuated into the 2000 campaign dialogue depends on our creativity in designing interesting and entertaining formats and in demonstrating that the interests of candidates, citizens, and the media are served in so doing. The permanent campaign will not disappear anytime soon, but constructive steps can and should be taken during the 2000 election campaign to improve the climate for governing in the new millennium.