Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The News for Parrots

Here's an observation that is in no way a comment on the results of Tuesday's primaries and caucuses in Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont: This election season is way too long. This is not principally a problem of expense. Even expensive elections are very cheap compared with, say, weapons systems. The problem with a Presidential election season that takes, depending on what you count as the start date, one to two years, is that during that time, the campaign dominates the news. Even coverage of other issues---such as war, the economy and just about everything else---tends to get filtered through its likely impact on the Presidential election. Mainstream news tends to sound a bit like "the news for parrots." (See below.)

What's so bad about the news for parrots/presidential elections? Well, for one thing, it means that a second-term President is treated as a lame duck for about half of his second term. You might think that this is a positive if you disapprove of the second-term President's policy objectives, but even then, an important effect of lame duck treatment is to give the President a pass on issues where people think they can just wait him out. Meanwhile, the legislative agenda in Congress tends to stall as well, as everyone anticipates the next administration. And that's to say nothing of the impact of having---as we had this time around for many months--6% of the Senate actually running for President (Biden, Brownback, Clinton, Dodd, McCain, and Obama).

Is there a way to counteract the news-for-parrots phenomenon? Maybe. There are two principal drivers of the extended campaign season. First, with states leapfrogging each other to have earlier and earlier primaries, the whole campaign gets pushed back earlier. Second, and relatedly, that means that candidates need to start raising money earlier, and so the national news media pay attention earlier. Seeing how in the current cycle states that held their primaries and/or caucuses late in the season have been very influential, perhaps the pressure to hold early primaries might let up a bit in the future.

But even if so, don't count on a shorter campaign season. John Edwards more or less began running for President the day after election day in 2004. Future candidates are unlikely to infer from this election that his mistake was starting too early. Thus we may some day enter an era of all news for parrots, all the time.

Posted by Mike Dorf