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COLUMN

Fast, Expensive and Out of Control

Michael J. Ring

Just as the temperature has gone soaring during the dog days of summer, the sweet nectar of democracy has been put on ice.

What once seemed like a fruitful, crowded, competitive presidential election, the first in twelve years without an incumbent seeking reelection, has evolved into a yawn of a race. Most of the Democratic competition to Vice President Al Gore had already been scared off in 1998 or the opening months of 1999, but the Republican primary still offered hope for a fierce contest. Two recent announcements, though, have chilled the prospects for any candidate not best known for his middle initial.

Last week, George W. Bush, Texas governor and heir apparent to the Republican throne, announced he had shattered all previous fundraising records by shaking down over $36 million thus far for his White House run. Also recently set was the 2000 primary schedule, crammed into a few weeks of February and March, 2000. The twin conspirators of seemingly infinite money and seemingly infinitesimal time promise to produce the worst presidential nominating sequence in our nation’s history.

First, let’s tackle the cash. On the Democratic side, primary voters may actually have a horse race, thanks to Al Gore’s numerous stumbles out of the gate and to a reasonably equal distribution of campaign contributions. While the veep has taken in $18 million thus far, upstart challenger Bill Bradley is putting on the full-court press with $11.5 million in contributions.

No such parity exists on the other side of the aisle. W’s Texas-size bank account has buried the competition. Arizona Senator John McCain, who is second among Republicans in the great money-chase, has captured “only” $4 million, but one-ninth of W’s tally. Only Steve Forbes, who can always cut himself a nice little campaign check, can compete with the Texan’s money.

Now, from money to time. The primary process, which once took three or four months, has effectively been crammed into one and one-half months. The Iowa caucuses next year will actually be on January 31st, with the New Hampshire primary following in early February. Then a rapid-fire series of primaries will follow, as states like Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona leapfrog each other seeking that all-important early date. By the time California and New York hold primaries on March 7, both nominations may well be sealed, eight months before the 2000 final election.

Running for the most important job in the free world should take time. Candidates need to develop plans and ideas, and then sell them to the American people. They need time to hear the worries and concerns of the people they represent. Perhaps most importantly, they need the time (and money) to have a rational debate with their opponents over who offers the best agenda for moving America forward.

And so these baneful twins of excess money and not enough time intertwine to ruin the political process. Instead of offering groundbreaking, perhaps controversial ideas, candidates will be tempted to take the poll-driven, Clintonesque route. Those the least likely to do so, those most likely to offer constructive plans for our society, Bradley and McCain, are underdogs.

As we enter the Third American Century, our nation will face many challenges at home and abroad. We must continue to adjust to our current role as the only superpower while managing relationships with nations with great future potential, like China. Domestically, we need to reform many of our most basic government welfare guarantees to the graying of America. I sincerely hope the 2000 presidential process will be the last to be conducted so hastily and transparently.

The 2000 election should make blatantly obvious to everyone how much campaign finance reform is needed. As if W’s $36 million isn’t enough, who knows how many more millions will follow in issues-advocacy ads? The specter of that $36 million makes absolute spending limits on the campaign a tempting possibility as well, but at the very least other candidates without the fund-raising punch must receive more generous public financing to compete. Senator McCain has promised to take his fight for campaign finance reform to the campaign trail. Let’s hope America listens.

But money is only half the problem; the other is time. Here the secretaries of state of the various states must show a little courage and put away that instinctive drive to set an early primary. A system of rotating regional primaries, through which a geographical bloc of states all vote on the same day, is an ideal solution. First, it allows focus on regional issues that are often overlooked in a hasty campaign, such as fishing in the Northeast and farming in the Midwest. And a well-spaced schedule -- perhaps three weeks between each regional primary -- allows plenty of time for voters to meet candidates and understand their positions, while making an air war difficult and likely unfruitful.

Time is not money in politics; money is no substitute for time. Primary voters need an extended period of contests to learn about candidates and their platforms, and a rushed schedule calling for all-out television saturation is an unacceptable substitute. Both political parties should take steps now to make sure the 2004 election is a return to electoral sanity. For our future, we deserve nothing less.