Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007
No Huddle:On Saturday, the clock on Bush's presidency wound down to the two-year mark—but by then, both parties had already gone into their hurry-up offense. Three candidacies were announced in a single weekend, breaking the previous two-day record set by Mario Cuomo's 1991 campaign-in-waiting. If Republicans and Democrats maintain their current January pace (12 entries in 22 days), each party will have more than 100 presidential candidates by the Iowa caucuses.
For once, the American people are in an even bigger rush than the candidates. In the latest ABC-Washington Post poll, Bush's disapproval rating matched his personal best of 65 percent. CBS has his job approval down to 28 percent. That ought to be a weather advisory for tonight's State of the Union: When the political thermometer drops below freezing, the president can't stand still and expect to survive.
But precisely because Bush can't figure out how to wind down his long war abroad, the presidential candidates are rushing into a long war here at home. In past cycles, the press and the public alike have bemoaned campaigns that began a whole year before the first votes were cast. This time, the long campaign couldn't start soon enough.
For the country, a long, drawn-out campaign could turn out to be a good thing. With so much time to fill, candidates in both parties might actually be forced to turn their attention to putting new ideas on the table.
For those in and around the campaigns, however, a long war is a decidedly mixed blessing. Candidates will have to sustain a blistering pace for the next 51 weeks, and if they're successful, longer still. Because most of the candidates work in the Senate, even when they break from campaigning, they will get precious little break from one another.
Has-beens like me live for campaign season but dread long, drawn-out primaries. As any veteran political reporter or campaign junkie will tell you, presidential campaigns are the most dangerous addiction that doesn't violate the laws of this country. They're a habit that is impossible to resist, harder to quit, and if continued past your twenties, almost certain to kill you. Or worse: You might already be dead and not yet have noticed.
Back in 1972, The Candidate showed us a campaign that ended in victory but left its volunteers jaded and cynical. Presidential primary campaigns are often just the opposite—inspiring, idealistic, and ending in defeat.
That's what makes the lure of presidential primaries so dangerous. No matter how many races send us to rehab, most presidential campaign veterans never lose the idealism that led to our addiction in the first place. Even more than rookies, old hands still feel the magic of a presidential campaign, the one moment every four years with unlimited possibility to re-imagine America's future. To anyone who has ever worked on a presidential campaign, the snows of New Hampshire are as much a sign of eternal spring as the smell of fresh-cut grass at Fenway.
The curse of a long campaign is that it prolongs the temptation, even as it ups the dosage. Long campaigns favor the qualities that are the first to go—youth, stamina, and most important, the ability to convince loved ones that the campaign won't really be very long at all.
For the last five presidential cycles, I have been haunted by a story I heard my first time out in 1988, from a legendary policy wonk named Bill Galston. Bill was an ex-Marine, a political science professor, and then as now one of the finest minds in the business. About this time in the 1984 cycle, he had given up his dream job—a tenured position at the University of Texas—to begin a two-year stint as Walter Mondale's policy director, a job so draining its only redeeming quality was that it lacked tenure. The way Bill told the story, he woke up one morning on the Mondale campaign, looked in the mirror, and realized that his entire head of hair had suddenly turned white. Yet there he was, back in the fray the next cycle and the cycle after that, with yet another tenured university post to keep from losing and no gray hairs left to give.