Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2003 / 18 Tishrei, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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A better government in between campaigns? | Afghanistan. Iraq. Now California. And still no "quagmire." None of the bad things that journalists predicted would happen in California's recall election happened. Voting went smoothly despite the fact that election officials had only nine weeks to prepare, voter turnout was the highest ever for a non-presidential election, and there were 135 candidates on the ballot.

Nor was the election a "circus." The serious candidates on the replacement ballot - Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock and Democratic LtGov. Cruz Bustamante - together got 95 percent of the vote. Californians paid far less attention to the vanity candidates than did the news media.

Especially out of proportion was the attention the media paid to egoist Arianna Huffington. She has never held elective or appointive office, or run a successful business, and had negligible public support. Yet she was a guest on virtually every cable television talk show. When Arianna withdrew from the race after bombing in the big televised debate, my newspaper (in Pennsylvania, for Heaven's sake) ran the story under a five column headline at the top of the back page of our main news section. The New York Times put Arianna's withdrawal at the top of its national news section.

What I liked best about California's recall election (aside from its outcome) was its brevity. If the nation's most populous state can hold without difficulty a gubernatorial election in just a bit more than two months, there is no excuse for having our presidential election campaigns drag on for two years.

As noted above, more Californians voted in the recall election than in any non-presidential election. The debate Sep. 24 was the most watched political event in California history.

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The extraordinary (for California) interest in the recall election can be explained mostly by unique factors: the historic nature of the recall; the especially dire budget circumstances California faces; Arnold Schwarzenegger's celebrity status.

But at least part of the interest was because the campaign was short. It didn't drag on and on, so people didn't get bored with it.

I don't think much of the Democratic candidates for president. But the stature of the "Nine Dwarves" has artificially been shrunken because they've been running for president at a time when sensible people have little interest in politics. They seem small because no one is paying attention. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark vaulted to the top of the pack (in national polls) by joining it "late" - 14 months before the election.

Long election campaigns do much worse than diminish the stature of candidates and bore the hell out of the electorate. Campaigns necessarily are about partisan differences. The longer they go on, the less there is of the bipartisan cooperation on which successful governing in a democracy largely depends. Would Iraq policy be so poisonously politicized if so many Democrats hadn't been running for president for this entire year? I don't think so.

Suppose we had a law that would deny federal matching funds to candidates for president who formed their campaign committees before Labor Day of the year preceding the election. That would still give candidates nearly five months to genuflect before the various special interest groups before the primaries begin.

I've long advocated a form of public financing that would make these pilgrimages to special interest shrines less necessary. Suppose there were a $200 million annual fund, to be divided among the parties in proportion to the percentage of the vote their last candidate for president received, provided that the parties agreed to accept additional contributions only from citizens of the United States who are registered to vote, in amounts of no more than $10,000 a year?

Now suppose we add an additional string, that parties which accept public money agree not to recognize delegate selection contests which take place before March of the election year. We'd have shorter election campaigns, more public interest in those campaigns, less special interest influence upon them, and maybe - just maybe - better government in between campaigns.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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