Last month brought a rare instance of bipartisanship when Republicans and Democrats agreed to extend a payroll tax cut. Unfortunately, the moment of comity was overshadowed by an unfortunate reality: the proposed legislation is likely to be the last act of cooperation between the two parties before the November election. Given the ideological divide in Congress, the prospects for substantive action in the remaining months of 2012 are remote.
At a time when the country is beginning a fourth straight year of unemployment above 8 percent, Congress will in effect (if not officially) be in recess, thanks to the impending election. In the next few months, the American public may be treated to political hearings or stem-winding speeches on the House floor, but very little will be going on in the way of serious engagement with the pressing social and political issues of the day.
The increasingly drawn-out presidential election process is high on the list of reasons for this state of affairs. With each state jockeying for the lead position in the Republican primary season, this year’s election cycle was pushed back to early January. The long schedule, coupled with a stunning 20 debates, has provided plenty of distraction for cable news addicts. Yet it has also given the impression that the presidential election is just around the corner, when it is in fact eight months away.
The United States, with its sprawling network of state primaries, will never be able to embrace a shortened election season in the style of the United Kingdom and other parliamentary governments. But the current presidential selection process is unsustainable. One hopes that the problems evident this year will press both parties to make significant changes in the nomination system. Reform is not a pipe dream; in 1968 the backroom deals that traditionally engineered the Democratic nomination finally gave way under the weight of public scrutiny. This year could be another such turning point.
The absurd state of the campaign finance system should help to advance the cause of reform. The two Supreme Court decisions commonly referred to as Citizens United have, in short order, upended the presidential election process. Thanks to wealthy individuals with idiosyncratic agendas, candidates have been able to survive far longer than they would have managed otherwise. Money has fueled the rise of individuals who plainly lack the credentials or temperament to be president. Meanwhile, the primary drags on, each candidate waiting for the next infusion of cash. It is not surprising that some of the most sought after Republican contenders chose to opt out of the race.
In this chaotic environment, President Obama could have stood against the influence of money in politics. Instead, his campaign decided to embrace the “super PAC” system, which allows wealthy individuals to funnel millions of dollars to candidates. Campaign staff members explained that they would not “unilaterally disarm” in anticipation of the November election. Yet in light of the legislative paralysis engendered by this marathon of a campaign season, the president and his staff may wish to reconsider their complicity in our dysfunction. The Oval Office is a unique piece of moral high ground. President Obama would have sent a powerful message if he had eschewed super PAC money in an election year.
With the aid of outside money, President Obama may well win a difficult re-election fight. But then what? The Republicans will surely achieve some notable victories. Super PACs could help put the Senate in the hands of the Republicans, ensuring another two years of political division. Even if the Democrats somehow regain control of both houses, they will have a short window to implement their agenda. Pundits now estimate that the party in power has only 100 days to set a legislative course. After that the public’s attention turns to the midterm elections; and before you know it, the media will look toward 2016, when the horse race can begin again.
As long as the nation is in permanent campaign mode, the promise of legislative progress will remain faint. Reform should focus on two fronts. Shortening the primary season by sponsoring rotating regional primaries is one proposal worth serious consideration. The fewer state contests, the less likely that super PACs can make mischief. Meanwhile, Congress should enact additional disclosure laws to make it clear who is donating to super PACs. Other, more unorthodox finance reforms should also be discussed, like Max Frankel’s proposal (The New York Review of Books, 2/9 ) that would require a candidate to purchase equal time for an opponent when buying a television ad. Creative thinking and close attention will be required to combat the influence of money in politics and mend our flawed electoral system.