Amazing but ... yes!
This evening in Iowa, perhaps as many as 200,000 party loyalists will caucus for presidential candidates. The TV wiseacres, the ones Calvin Trillin calls the "Sabbath gasbags," assure us that those votes will shape the win, place and show rankings for the rest of the nation. Five days later, about 400,000 voters in New Hampshire will seal the deal. This, the same pundits tell us, creates momentum, even inevitability for a nominee; the rest of the country is welcome to second the motion.
And boom -- almost as soon as Groundhog Day, it's all over but the general election. (By amazing happenstance, there are about 200,000 people in the city of Glendale, and more than 400,000 in Long Beach. So the primary system is like letting Glendale and Long Beach choose the two presidential candidates for the entire country -- more than seven months before the actual nominating conventions.)
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the Oscar people -- did what the political parties do, only a few of its members would have a say in what films get nominated for best picture. And, perhaps even worse, it would vote on only the movies released in the first few months of the year, even before blockbuster season.
By those rules, this year we'd be hearing buzz about the best-picture virtues of "Seraphim Falls" over "Georgia Rule" and the dark-horse chances of "Grindhouse." No "Sweeney Todd." No "3:10 to Yuma," no "Valley of Elah" or "Savages" or "Rendition" or "Charlie Wilson's War."
So why do we choose presidential candidates in a way that we would never let Hollywood get away with for the Oscars? Just what is the all-fired rush?
It isn't until six or seven months after early primaries all but sew up the nominations that the parties stage their pro forma nominating conventions. Six months is an eternity in this Tivo/Treo/YouTube world; in six months, economies can go into free fall, oil prices can hit escape velocity, wars can be waged and won and lost, assassins and terrorists can strike, natural disasters can befall. In six months, anything could happen, and has, and will.
All these crises should be testing the broad field of candidates in both parties, almost like a shadow presidency. Knowing how they respond and react right up to conventions lets us gauge their smarts and take their measure.
We would get to do that, but by the close of business on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, at least half of the delegates will be committed. In a way, what we've been thinking is an endless campaign is actually an extremely long fundraiser, meant to scare up money and to scare other candidates with the threat of it.
Once upon a time -- to use Hollywood lingo -- candidates were chosen by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms; now they're chosen by special-interest bosses in cash-filled fundraisers. Take the 2000 election: Between January and June 1999, 10 Republicans declared their interest in running for president. During that period, one of the 10, George W. Bush, raised $36 million, three times the old record. And, surprise: Before election year 2000 had even arrived, most of the others had jumped out of the race and out of the way of Bush's big-money steamroller.
The actual politics-and-policy part of campaigning, when voters sit up and tune in, doesn't last all that long. By the time voters are beginning to decide who they might want to vote for, that candidate might have been priced out.
And yes, to my own surprise, I'm saying that the so-called endless campaigns don't last long enough -- not the good parts, anyway. We need primary campaigns in which candidates can spend less time rattling the donations cup and more time singing the hymn. And we need primary elections that don't all try to cram to the front.
In Beverly Hills a few weeks ago, I saw a car with this bumper sticker: "Atticus Finch for President." Now that's great casting, but I probably wouldn't leave it to Hollywood alone to choose a presidential candidate. You only have to look at some past presidential casting decisions to see why. Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson. A Briton, Kenneth Branagh, as FDR. And, as Ulysses S. Grant, Fred Thompson.