Nasty, Brutish and Long: The Brilliance of the Modern Campaign

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

These nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation. John F. Kennedy became a better president and person by encountering Appalachian poverty during the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. During his 18,009 mile, 600-speech campaign in 1896, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan insisted that voters “have a right to know where I stand on public questions.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategist advised his candidate in 1932 in strikingly modern terms: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Traditionally, candidates repeated stump speeches so frequently that, as Herbert Hoover noted, “paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.

Popular candidates stopped being passive kings-to-be, becoming active, articulate, prime-ministers-in-formation, introducing themselves to the people, who wanted to vet their leaders. Most Americans still yearned for George Washington’s dignified silence, even as they cheered candidates engaging in what Hubert Humphrey would later call “armpit politics,” intense and intimate.  In 1840, William Henry Harrison explained that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” rivals’ libels that he was a “caged simpleton.” Similarly, in 1948, a century later,President Harry Truman traveled to California to give the locals a chance to examine him in person. “I had better come out and let you look at me to see whether I am the kind of fellow they say I am,” he said.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

Voters oversimplify, viewing presidential campaigns as presidential dress rehearsals. After Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the defeated Vice President Dan Quayle predicted:  “If he runs the country as well as he ran the campaign, we’ll be all right.” Actually, campaigns are auditions for certain aspects of the job. Although the contrast between Barack Obama as candidate and as president suggests that great campaigners do not always make great presidents, every great president must now be a great campaigner first.

Campaign budgets reflect the time candidates require to capture attention across America’s continental expanse. Candidates compete against the din of modern life, not just against each other. Considering that Procter & Gamble spent $8.7 billion in 2008 peddling detergents and razors, spending $4.3 billion for the 2008 campaign appears a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Ronald Reagan used his four presidential runs in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 to become a better candidate – and the Great Communicator. He relished voters’ sweaty handshakes, sloppy kisses, hearty backslaps and soaring hopes, explaining simply, “I happen to like people.”  Reagan instinctively understood the Progressive philosopher John Dewey’s teaching that “democracy begins in conversation.”  That conversation can turn ridiculous, raucous or tedious, but it serves as both safety valve and social salve. Presidential campaigns historically have had happy endings, with America’s leader legitimized by the open, rollicking process.

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”