- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007


Now that we have passed at least one marker, Labor Day, that signals a formal beginning of the next presidential campaign, why does it feel we are already at the end? The obvious answer is that so much of this cycle’s campaigning came so early.

A less obvious answer is that media and blogosphere attention has been so overwhelming in its detail, combined with numerous (albeit superficial) broadcast debates between contenders, that the political and media class seem to have exhausted themselves trying to explain what it all means.

But I think it is also true that the far more important and larger group, the voters, haven’t really been paying all that much attention, and only now are beginning to look at the two major party fields of contestants.

The voters, of course, have a different set of motivations for the timing of their interest. They know, as voters have always known, that it makes little sense to make final decisions about candidates before the real and immediate conditions under which they can be judged are known. For example, we do not know what the circumstances of the national economy will be in the autumn of 2008. Many unanswered questions about the “real estate bubble” remain, including whether there will be a foreclosure crisis, whether lowering interest rates will be sufficient to rescue homebuilders and homesellers, what falling home values will do to voters’ sense of financial security, and (often forgotten) what impact reduced sales of new and existing real estate will have on the important associated markets which sell building materials, furniture, appliances and other home products.

International issues, and not just the war against Islamofascist terror and its current battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, also remain unclear. There are unanswered questions about U.S. international commerce, including our balance of trade, outsourcing, and high technology competition. U.S. multinational corporations and American labor groups have much at stake in all of this, and have many current and potential conflicts with each other.

On the other hand, we already know some issues we will face late next year.

We know that in 2008 the global threat of Islamofascist aggression will be with us in one fashion or another.

We know that an approaching Social Security crisis will be closer than before and more costly to repair, having failed to act to fix the program in recent congressional sessions.

We know that a festering, and now critical, health-care crisis could mess up our economy and society as never before, having also failed to make the needed reforms when we could at lower cost.

We know that pressure to make necessary and constant infrastructure repair will remain as a challenge, having chosen not to change our systems of earmarks and government bureaucratic controls.

We know that we cannot indefinitely spend more than the revenue we take in. There used to be theories that national deficits were good, just as there continue to be theories that our huge international trade deficit is somehow beneficial. (Small deficits are not a problem, but large long-term deficits are. We now notice that our international trading partners who hold huge net deposits of U.S. dollars are no longer content to simply hold these as dollar reserves.

They are instead using their dollars to purchase large U.S. companies and industries outright. (This is not so much an economic problem as it is a national-security problem.) The presidential election ahead also faces some need of procedural repair. One could be fixed in time, the other almost certainly cannot. The latter is the current out-of-control calendar of the presidential primaries of the major political parties. The party organizations do not seem to be able to impose a reasonable order, and we are now likely to have our first primary in December. If the 2008 primaries turn out to be a serious misadventure, the system will be repaired for 2012. The current system, however bad, will somehow get us through the current cycle.

What can be fixed in time is the system of political conversation, including primarily the debates between the presidential candidates. Marvin Kalb and Newt Gingrich have made an open-format nine-debates-in-nine-weeks proposal (which grew out of an open debate/dialogue with Mario Cuomo and Mr. Gingrich at Cooper Union earlier this year) that makes a lot of sense and promises to greatly enhance the voters’ opportunity to evaluate the nominees. Some of the presidential contenders have already agreed to this format.

What cannot be fixed in the conversation is the ludicrous and ultimately unconstitutional form of campaign finance which is now in place. That, like the primary calendar, will have to wait until 2012.

There is one possible benefit to the prematurity of the 2008 presidential campaign so far. Having exhausted themselves on arcane strategies and overkill deconstruction of the candidates, the political class and the media might just have to take a breather while the candidates and events sort everything out. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but it would be the best relief of all as we now enter the beginning of the end of the journey to January 20, 2009.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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