Is it possible that the 2016 presidential campaign is already a mess? You’re probably not thinking much about it, which is healthy. No wonder you’re looking so trim and your cheeks are pink. But the candidates in the thick of it can’t ignore the noise, and that’s not healthy.
In the political world, the pace of 2016 conversation has been quickening. Will the George Washington Bridge investigation kill New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chances? Is it smart for Republicans to keep talking about the Clinton-era scandals? The latest round of analysis has been kicked off by the disclosure of 27,000 emails from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s staff. In 2009 and 2010 when he was Milwaukee County executive, his staffers were coordinating his political activity while on government time, which is illegal. If you haven’t heard about these emails, don’t let anyone know or a member of the Democratic National Committee will visit you to perform a live reading. (As I type this, an email has arrived from the Democratic Governors Association linking to an editorial calling on Walker to disclose what he knew).
Trying to evaluate the political impact of events almost two years before the first primary is not an effective use of time. Voters are living their lives and not paying attention, and other issues will be more important come voting time. But potential presidential candidates can’t ignore these developments. They have to weigh their significance even to dismiss them. The corrosion of the campaign is now taking up more time in their day. Hillary Clinton has lived in this world since her husband announced he was running for president, and retirement hasn’t shielded her from the heat. Walker and Christie have been covered closely at the national level, but they are facing a new kind of teeth cleaning as potential presidential leaders.
Each of these politicians deserves some of the scrutiny—government investigations are news, so are the private diaries of close friends—but the permanent partisan war increases the intensity and the tempo of each new development. My inbox is full of Democrats trying to diminish Walker’s chances in his re-election this year, damage his aspirations for the future, or paint a negative image of the GOP by exposing one of its leading lights. Last week the Republican National Committee chairman was using the latest news about Hillary Clinton as an organizing tool. All of this swirl leads to a back-and-forth about relative levels of sin. Was Hillary Clinton’s abuse of power in the Travelgate firings worse than Christie’s Bridgegate? Is Bridgegate worse than Bengahzi? The DNC wants us to compare Walker’s troubles to Christie’s.
The candidate reaction to increased scrutiny is timidity and increased calculation. The level of attention and constant pressure is likely to squeeze out the innovation, risk-taking, and spark that we want in our presidential candidates. If they can somehow retain these qualities, they don’t dare show them, for the searchlights will be on them immediately. There was once a period in which two years before the primaries presidential candidates could roam around Iowa and New Hampshire without these constraints. That gave us a better chance to see them before they were encased like Robocop in armor and artifice. It wasn’t a genuine view, but it was less rigid than the full battle-readiness now required. Christie’s office used to promote YouTube videos of the governor in heated conversations with constituents. No more of that now—the governor doesn’t want to reanimate the image of him as a bully. So after his latest town hall, the governor’s office released a picture of him giving a little girl a high-five. Next week: puppies.
The early onslaught has other downsides. Candidates must raise more money than ever to battle against being defined too early (as Mitt Romney was). That means more time in double-staircase mansions shaking the tin cup and more attention spent answering and anticipating the fishtailing attacks being peddled in the noise machine. It also means more time playing tit-for-tat. So Walker is on the defensive about his emails and he sends a little return fire aimed at Clinton, who he said was a creature of Washington with few achievements. The earlier you have to retreat to friendly venues like the Hugh Hewitt radio show, the greater chance you’ll stay in that comfortable space and not venture out to more challenging venues, which might illuminate who you are or what substance you bring. The early onset of the campaign vise means that if a candidate ever makes it to the White House, she has been under the klieg lights for so long that her equanimity is a faded memory.
Campaigns have always been high-pressure and absurd, but when they started later, candidates had time to engage in activities unrelated to campaigning, which meant they might stumble on a few talents that could be useful in governing. Now, the earlier campaigns start, the earlier you have to start campaigning. In both Christie’s and Walker’s cases, their troubles result from staffer’s plotting for the next election.
The 2012 presidential campaign wasn’t uplifting, nourishing, or full of worthwhile debates about the issues of the day. It could have been. The debates were there to be had. It just never felt like they genuinely took place. Everyone gets a share of the blame for that, particularly those of us in the press, but part of what made things so calorie-free is that the candidates had become habituated to offering only the safest bromides. The earlier candidates get into the micro-cycle of answering attacks and launching them, the greater likelihood we’re all going to get stuck going around the same stingy circle from now until November 2016.