Running in place

Campaigning too much, governing too little

Published January 29, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"I do not believe you will ever get the politics out of politics," President Clinton said at one point during his news conference yesterday. "And that's not bad."

Not everyone would agree these days. Opinion polls repeatedly suggest that Americans are sick of what Clinton himself has called "partisan bickering" -- which, after all, is merely another term for politics. It is the constant politicking, some analysts argue, that causes legislative gridlock and leads to campaign finance scandals -- which the President spent much of yesterday's news conference addressing. Despite mutual pledges of cooperation, there is considerable doubt whether needed reforms in campaign finance, or much else, will get past the shoals of "politics" in the next four years.

Salon spoke to one of the doubters, Anthony King, a British political scientist who is a longtime observer of American politics. Professor King contributes regularly to the BBC and The Economist and is the author of the recently-published book "Running Scared: Why America's Politicians Campaign Too Much and Govern Too Little" (Free Press).

If there is one thing that political reformers agree on, it is the need for campaign finance reform. President Clinton said again at his news conference that it is high on his agenda. What chance does it have this time around?

It may be that it has no chance. Those in power tend to stick with the system that brought them to power. They have a stake in the old system, and they're going to be very reluctant to change it.

Even though -- with all the scandals and upcoming investigations -- it is so clearly needed?

It's part of the phenomenon of the political class playing political games which they seem to enjoy but have nothing to do with the vast bulk of the people. It makes people look at politicians as a weird, alien and unattractive tribe. Why the politicians don't notice this and take steps accordingly I do find rather puzzling.

Yet we re-elect them, or most of them, time after time.

One of the reasons for that is that American politicians go to far greater and continuous trouble than those in any other country to make sure they are re-elected. You find that in all sorts of ways, from the kinds of legislation they pass to the kind of speeches they make. Because they feel under such continuous pressure, they take amazing steps -- raising enormous amounts of money -- to ensure that their vulnerability is minimized. As I say in the book, nuclear power stations are pretty safe, but you tend to take extreme safety precautions because the consequences of something going wrong are enormous.

And in politics, the worst consequence is to lose your seat.

Yes, and what makes that worse than in other democracies are the number of opportunities to lose: every two years in the House, and one-third of the Senate turns over every two years. Then there are primaries: Your average elected politician, at least at the national level, has to be elected not once but twice. And the cost of running for office is so inordinately high in the U.S. Add that all up and what you have is a situation in which American elected office-holders are under far greater and far more continuous electoral pressure than politicians in any other country.

What's wrong with that? Isn't that just another way of saying American politicians are more accountable to the people?

Oh, absolutely. It is a central tenet of American democracy, and has been since the time of Andrew Jackson, that politicians should really be little more than the people's agents. That in an ideal world, the United States would be governed not by politicians at all but by a continuous town meeting of some kind or another. That's the assumption that largely underlies American thinking about democracy. But it seems to me to be an erroneous assumption.

In my view, countries are better governed if they're governed according to some kind of division of labor. It's roughly analogous to the division of labor between a doctor and patient. Sure, you chose your doctor just as you chose your elected government. But then you expect the doctor to get on with the treatment -- after all, he or she is supposed to know more about medicine than you do. But under the American system of government, that's not so. Instead of tending to governing, instead of attending to the complex interaction of things, instead of ingesting the large amounts of ideas and factual material they need to make informed decisions, politicians spend far too much of their time campaigning, playing to the crowd and engaging in the kind of sound-bite politics that gives American politicians a bad name.

And, in your book, you say that the result is that major problems go unsolved.

Yes. Take the first oil shock in the 1970s, the huge budget deficit beginning in the '80s, and crime in the '90s. The striking thing about all of those problems is that the great majority of politicians agreed that something should be done about them. But look at the record: With the oil shock American policy simply floundered, with both Congress and the president going to great lengths to shield the American public from an oil price rise. The result was extreme and prolonged market distortion. And instead of reducing dependence on foreign oil, America's dependence actually increased during this period.

With the deficit, it's true that other countries have had trouble bringing their deficit down, but I don't think there's any country where it's taken so long to do anything effective. As regards crime, it seems to me the way in which Congress and the president have tackled the problem is an exercise in almost purely symbolic politics. Like finding some neat slogan which appeals to the voters, like "Three strikes and you're out," and operating in accordance with that slogan, even if there's no reason on earth to think that those policies are going to make any difference.

The upshot of all this is the public becomes more and more disillusioned. It seems to me it's not just money in politics, it's not just the failure as such to solve problems, it's the amount of bullshit that politicians use to conceal the fact that they're not accomplishing anything.

And you think a more European-style doctor-patient relationship between government and the people would accomplish more.

I think government ought to be left on the whole to people we chose to do the governing, with our having the ability to throw them out if they turn out to be rascals after four or five years. Now that's a very, very un-American conception, although some politicians, like John Kennedy, believed that political leaders are there to lead and not just to follow what the voters say. James Madison was extremely concerned to create a Republican division of labor style of government, rather than what he called dismissively "a democratic type of government." So I think a change in the intellectual climate would be helpful.

More specifically, there are several things one could do. The simplest would be four-year terms for the House. I wouldn't even mind eight-year terms for the Senate, with half the Senate turning over every four years.

And then there are the primaries. Why should an incumbent congressman or Senator face the possibility of a primary election every two years when there may be no reason to think that anybody wants to oust them? I cite the case of Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, who has been in the House for a couple of decades. In every electoral year but one, he's faced a primary challenge that has been absurd. Hoyer has typically won with over 80 or 90 percent of the vote. But he has to spend a good deal of time and money girding his loins against that challenge when there's absolutely no reason to think that the Democratic voters in his district want to get rid of him.

My suggestion -- which would save an awful lot of money and an awful lot of nervousness on the part of members of Congress -- would be to say, look, before you have a primary you have to go out and get a large petition showing that a considerable number of people are demanding one. That would mean that members of Congress could spend less time worrying about electioneering and more time getting on with the serious business of government.

And campaign finance?

I would strongly argue for giving candidates free time on television and radio, provided they agree not to buy additional time.

Quote of the day

No-nonsense journalism

"I'm impressed by the variety of roles you've played lately."

"Cool. Excellent. Thank you."

-- Reporter Jeff Giles interviewing actor Brad Pitt in the Feb. 3 issue of Newsweek.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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