Presidential election campaigns in the United States have become trials for the long-distance runner, increasingly extended and increasingly expensive. For some months now, the nine declared candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have been appearing at various panels around the country and in debates on national television. Despite their efforts (or perhaps because of them), the American voting public does not appear to be preoccupied at the moment with November 2004 and the choices the nation must make at that time.
Unfortunately, while most Americans are distracted by more immediate concerns, the presidential campaign has already suffered two casualties: the modest advances that had been made in the long struggle to control campaign finances and the hope that a reasonable civility would prevail in the necessary debate that should take place on the direction of U.S. foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Two of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, have decided that they will not participate in the federal public financing program so that they will be free from the spending limits the federal program imposes. Governor Dean, whose campaign has successfully pioneered new strategies in raising financial support through the Internet, was the first to declare that he would not participate in the public finance program. Senator Kerry, who is thought to be trailing Governor Dean even in the senator’s home state, promptly followed suit. Both Democratic candidates cited the tireless fund-raising efforts of President Bush, who will probably break the record of $100 million that he raised during his primary campaign of 2000, even though the Republican primary of 2004 will be uncontested.
Critics of campaign finance reforms, who believe that any limitation on contributions or expenditures is a restriction on free speech, may be heartened by the abandonment of the federal program by two of the leading Democratic candidates. But those who believe that the most important qualification of a president should not be his capacity to serve as Fundraiser in Chief will be disappointed at the Democrats’ decision to reject any limits on campaign spending.
As campaigns become more expensive, they do not necessarily become more enlightened. Major campaign expenditures go toward television commercials that are frequently negative in character, quick assaults on opposing candidates that invariably distort issues and misrepresent opposing positions. A disturbing example of this trend is the television ad developed by the Republican National Committee that questions the patriotism of those who “attack the president for attacking terrorists.”
The wisdom of the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 should be a legitimate issue in the presidential campaign of 2004. For Democrats to question the different and shifting arguments used by the administration to justify a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, for example, does not constitute a lack of support for U.S. forces who are now engaged in a bitter guerilla war in Iraq, even as they attempt to assist in the rehabilitation of that country. In fact, U.S. military men and women now serving in Iraq might be better prepared for their complex mission if civilian leaders in the Defense Department had not dismissed the warnings of professional soldiers, like the former Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki, on the probable costs of a prolonged occupation of Iraq.
The foreign policies followed by the Bush administration since the 2001 terrorist attacks, particularly its ambitious goal of creating democratic societies in the Middle East, but also its rejection of international institutions and its unilateral decisions on the use of military force, represent a radical change from the positions taken by presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000. Many argue, in defense of those policies, that after Sept. 11 we entered a new world that called for new directions. But the presidential election campaign of 2004 should be an opportunity to assess the wisdom of the new directions taken over the past three years and to ask both Democrats and Republicans to present a vision of the role of the United States in this new age of danger and opportunity. The citizens of the United States, and most certainly their sons and daughters on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and on other troubled fronts, deserve more than an escalating funds-race and negative commercials.