With one of the most brutal presidential campaigns most of us can remember finally behind us, I’d like to offer some suggestions that could make the next one easier on long-suffering voters.
The campaign just-ended was one of the longest and most rancorous ever. Yes, the candidates did occasionally focus on the issues, on what they hoped to accomplish if elected. But they spent far more time brawling in ways that would bring reprimands if it happened at any respectable kindergarten. There were reports of parents not allowing their children to watch the debates, putting them off-limits as they might with violent horror films (which at times the debates resembled).
The voters were subjected to hearing about the size of Donald Trump’s hands and, by extension, other parts of his anatomy. We were forced to sit through reruns of his and Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties and Hillary Clinton’s email improprieties. This more than any other campaign in memory was marred by irrelevant comments, rude remarks and outright violence. Can you imagine supporters of, say, JFK or Ronald Reagan punching each other out during their campaign speeches?
Part of the problem is that campaigns have become absurdly long. This one started almost two years before the election and seemed almost endless. How many of us even remember Jim Webb, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Lawrence Lessig or Mark Everson on the campaign trail?
OK, so political junkies remember them. But most of us don’t. This despite the fact that at one time, all were candidates for one of the major political parties. Campaigns have gotten so long and tedious that we either forget candidates and what they stood for or wish we had. It tests both the limits of the candidates’ endurance and the patience of the electorate. (In neighboring Canada, a country known for moderation and common sense, presidential campaigns are measured in weeks rather than months, let alone years.)
In the interest of making campaigns more bearable, here’s my first suggestion. Limit them to six months. Pass a law stating that no candidate should be allowed to begin campaigning earlier than six months prior to Election Day. Six months is plenty of time to discuss and debate the issues without sending the public into a politically induced coma. If the candidates can’t win us over in six months, they clearly don’t have the smarts or communication skills needed to run the country.
Second suggestion: Force candidates to stay on track during debates. Limit them to debating relevant issues that are meaningful and important to the American people. Any candidate who strays from relevance by criticizing the opposing candidates’ — or anyone else’s — gender, ethnic background, hand size or hairstyle should be given a warning. Those who fail to heed the warnings would be ejected from the stage in a fashion similar to that with which pilots are ejected from doomed aircraft.
Third suggestion: It’s an understatement to say that neither of the candidates this time around was universally popular. Not only were they not admired by a majority of Americans in the way that popular presidents have been, but the election results brought protests that in some cases bordered on rioting. All of this could be avoided with a simple addition to the ballot.
After listing the presidential candidates for the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Independents, Libertarians, Green Party, etc., we add “None of the Above.” If None of the Above wins, we have a do-over. Candidates who failed to get more votes than None of the Above would be excluded from running the second time around.
Campaigns and elections are, of course, expensive. But they don’t have to be. In the United Kingdom, political parties are limited to spending $29.5 million during the course of campaigns. No figures are available for the cost of Donald Trump’s campaign, but according to the New York Times, Hillary Clinton had raised almost $300 million by April — before the general election campaign even started.
In Germany, candidates are limited to one 90-second television commercial.
Even without spending limits, expenses would be reduced if campaigns were shorter. Is the system really working for us if the major-party candidates have nearly two years to campaign, and a sizable percentage of the American people still can’t stand one or the other of them? How many times did you hear people say the election was a choice between the lesser evil or ask whether this was the best the system could do?
I’d be willing to bet that if it had been on the ballot this time, None of the Above would have won easily.
Who knows? We might even get a better slate of candidates. We might get truly qualified people who are turned off by the thought of putting themselves and their families through grueling, seemingly endless campaigning. There might be a potentially great president out there right now who chooses not to run because the process is such a mess.
If we don’t do something to make campaigns shorter, less expensive and more focused on the issues, what will the next one be like? Will it start before painful memories of the last one have faded? Will multiple candidates fade from contenders to has-beens, leaving us with another distasteful choice? Hulk Hogan vs. Lady Gaga, perhaps?
Here’s hoping for the best for the next four years. May the new president grow into the job and the country regain some badly needed civility.
And next time around, may the campaign take a higher, shorter road.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.