No Rest for the Elected
They and any serious rivals have to stay in campaign mode every year, every day. Money and the media keep them running full time.
From his third-floor law office in Beverly Hills, Raymond
Boucher has one of the better vantage points on the
nation's politics. Here is what he sees: a parade of
candidates that seemingly snakes the length of Wilshire
And not just contestants in the 2006 elections. Boucher,
vice president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, has
already met with a dozen or so hopefuls who plan to run in
2008. And three or four aspiring office-seekers mapping out
campaigns for 2010.
"You talk about a political 'season,' " said
Boucher, who helps his group distribute millions of dollars
in campaign funds to state and federal candidates. "Right
now we're at the point where we're talking politics every
single day, almost 24 hours a day."
The permanent campaign â€" a never-ending cycle
of fundraising, polling and candidate positioning
â€" has been a growing part of American
politics for a generation, even before the term was
popularized in a 1980 book of that title by journalist
But those immersed in the election system â€"
candidates, fundraisers, campaign consultants, issue
advocates â€" say that in just the past few
years the pace has grown even more relentless, to a point
where the notion of a political "off-season" seems every
bit as quaint as straw boaters and torchlight parades.
President Bush is currently embarked on a 60-day blitz to
pitch an overhaul of Social Security, a campaign virtually
indistinguishable from his election tour last fall.
He has used the same camera-friendly backdrops, the same
buoyant crowds screened for potential dissenters, even some
of the same lines.
The White House is hardly alone in treating November's
election as just one more event on a 24/7 campaign
In California, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians,
which has bitterly feuded with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
over gambling issues, began airing TV spots attacking the
governor a month after the November vote. "If you have the
ability to define yourself with your own words, that's what
you need to be doing," said Deron Marquez, tribal
More recently, unions representing California's teachers
and nurses have joined the assault on Schwarzenegger,
pummeling the governor with radio and TV spots that will
probably continue if he seeks reelection.
Schwarzenegger has retaliated with radio and television
spots assailing his detractors. At the same time, he is
raising record sums of money as he threatens to call a
special election for November if lawmakers fail to adopt
his proposals to reshape Sacramento. It would be the sixth
statewide vote in three years.
Once a date is set, "You're looking at the prospect of a
ballot crowded not just with Arnold's proposals, but the
Democrats' proposals and interest group proposals," said UC
Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.
Indeed, roughly 80 prospective initiatives have been
submitted to the attorney general for review in Sacramento,
There are several reasons for the ceaseless campaigning,
starting with the dukes-up mentality â€" "hit
or be hit," as one political operative put it
â€" that has become instinctive for strategists
in both major parties.
The nation's near 50-50 partisan divide is another factor,
working like the chicken and egg: Greater polarization
among politicians leads to greater polarization among the
public, which fuels further polarization among the
But the main reasons for today's blitz of all politics all
the time are money and media.
The cost of campaigning continues to rise with each
election, forcing candidates to raise ever greater
In addition, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by
increased competition between cable TV networks and the
proliferation of political outlets on the Internet, means
an insatiable appetite for political news â€"
or, at least, something new to talk about.
"As a consequence, there's a temptation, an incitement, for
politicians to be active all the time," said Jim Jordan, a
Democratic campaign strategist in Washington, who
acknowledged that political professionals often egg on
their clients. "Those of us in the business do what we do,
and therefore we encourage our bosses to do it with
In California, the trend has been accelerated by term
limits, which produce unceasing churn in Sacramento.
"People are already thinking about reelection as soon as
they're elected, or moving to another position and wanting
to be first out of the box," said Democratic consultant
Gale Kaufman. "It costs so much money and it's so hard to
get name recognition statewide, you can't wait until the
last minute to announce and get started."
To some, there is virtue in a system that keeps candidates
in perpetual campaign mode â€" more political
discussion and a heightened awareness of the stakes
involved. The 2004 presidential campaign, one of the
longest and most heated in recent memory, produced a voter
turnout of roughly 60%, the highest in 36 years.
But the overwhelming sentiment is that much more has been
lost than gained.
One result, some analysts say, is legislative gridlock that
makes it nearly impossible to forge a bipartisan consensus
on any major issue. With at least one eye cast on the next
election, issues are no longer problems to be solved
through compromise but bludgeons to be used against the
"When you're going to fundraisers every night, you're going
to be in a campaign mode every day," said Douglas Bailey, a
Republican strategist who opened his Washington campaign
consulting firm nearly 40 years ago. Instead of
congressional colleagues, he said, members of the opposite
party have become adversaries and every day "is a constant
Bill Zimmerman, a Democratic advertising consultant in
Santa Monica, agreed. "As long as we have two Americas, one
red and one blue, as closely divided as we have now, we're
going to continue having the arms race we see," he said.
"And as happens in any arms race, it will escalate."
Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts declared his White
House ambitions on Jan. 2 of the presidential year 1960.
True, Kennedy had been angling for the office ever since he
was passed over for the second spot on the 1956 Democratic
ticket. But Kennedy's offhand announcement, in response to
a reporter's question, stands in stark contrast to the
years of public ground-laying that go into today's
presidential contests. Already, several candidates are
actively campaigning for 2008.
The cool, cerebral Kennedy benefited mightily as the first
candidate to master the fledgling medium of television. But
that was comparatively easy when there were just three
major networks, which served as the main source of
political news for the country. Today's panoply of media
outlets â€" the national TV networks, 24-hour
cable shows, talk radio, the Internet â€" have
drastically changed the nature of campaigning, from the
White House down.
"The generation of President Bush's father had politics as
a one-news-cycle-a-day event," said Rich Bond, a GOP
strategist who headed the Republican Party during President
George H.W. Bush's 1992 reelection bid. "You would gauge
who 'won' the evening news on a day-to-day basis and adjust
accordingly. We now have an hour-by-hour or event-by-event
news cycle where nobody's ever off duty."
Worse, much of what constitutes political "news" these days
is scarcely more than bickering and name-calling, which
strikes sparks but provides little in the way of
"What feeds the permanent campaign is conflict, controversy
and contrast," said Don Sipple, a GOP ad man whose client
list includes Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush, when he
was Texas governor. "The press is always more interested in
those elements than pure substance or education."
Of course, it is the main actors â€" the
candidates and their strategists â€" who drive
most of the political coverage. And the overriding tone of
most major political campaigns these days is negative
â€"all the more so as consultants produce
edgier ads designed to cut through the increased
In 1988, the elder Bush won the White House by savaging
Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, whose failure to fight back
was burned into the minds of political practitioners
everywhere. Four years later, strategists for Bill Clinton
created a much-celebrated "war room" that turned rapid
response into an art form. Today, the attacks,
counterattacks and counter-counterattacks zip back and
forth as quickly as they can fly over the Internet, or
surface on cable news shows.
As the campaign cycle perpetuates itself, the ways and
means of election season also have become a standard part
of year-round governing.
On Capitol Hill, one of the first tasks undertaken by Sen.
Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic leader, was
establishing his own "war room," led by veteran
communications strategist Jim Manley.
By 9:30 every workday morning, Manley's staff prepares a
set of talking points for distribution to Democratic press
secretaries, sympathetic radio talk show hosts, bloggers
and other allies across the country.
"The intent is to leave no attack unchallenged," Manley
said. "You need to respond not only to the day's news, but
get ahead of the day's news. It's become very similar to
what we've seen in presidential campaigns, with the give
and take, the cut and thrust."
Issue advocacy and third-party groups have taken their cues
from the candidates as well; partisans have already spent
millions of dollars trying to shape opinions on Social
Security, before Congress even has a bill to consider.
The advertising goes well beyond the efforts of a decade or
so ago, when opponents of Clinton's healthcare plan used a
few strategically placed cable TV spots â€" the
"Harry and Louise" ads featuring a couple fretting over
excess government regulation â€" to stir up
concern in Congress.
"Those were intended to show insider players the threat of
what you could do with [national] advertising," said Bill
Carrick, a veteran Democratic ad consultant. "Now people
are actually going out and doing it."
In the last dozen or so years, the cost of federal
elections has more than doubledâ€"exceeding $4
billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics,
which tracks money and campaigns.
Evidence suggests that the costs of state and local
campaigns have soared as well.
Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles, said
he tells first-time candidates for statewide office they
should count on spending 20 hours during the week, and
their entire weekend, courting donors and raising money.
Years ago, he said, fundraising took up a fraction of that
A major reason apart from the rising cost of campaigns is
the country's close partisan divide â€" not
just in Washington but in state capitals nationwide.
Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University expert on state
legislatures, estimates that at least one house of
government is up for partisan grabs in more than half the
states. (He excludes California, where Democrats control
the Assembly and state Senate by comfortable margins.)
Election spending is soaring "because neither side knows
how much it takes to win a competitive seat," Rosenthal
said. And when just a handful of seats can tip the balance
in partisan control, "You're going to raise as much as you
can. Suppose you don't and you lose. How do you justify
Still, for all the expressions of concern, not one of the
dozens of people interviewed for this article suggested
there was any reason to believe the cycle of 24/7 politics
would slow â€" much less end â€"
anytime soon. To the contrary, all suggested the breakneck
pace would only increase.
Indeed, the 2008 presidential campaign is already well
underway, with candidates hiring strategists, courting
donors and calling on the early-voting states of Iowa, New
Hampshire and South Carolina.
Jordan, who worked for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the
last presidential election, said that for the first time in
more than 50 years, there was no front-runner for the
nomination of either major party.
"You've got a limited pie for money and supporters that's
got to be split up an awful lot of ways," Jordan said. "No
would-be candidate wants to fall behind."
See the article on Los Angeles Times website