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Perpetual politics: Advent of permanent campaign

Now that the midterm elections are over, we have the opportunity to clean out our mailboxes and bathe them with bleach to remove the stench of all of the negative advertising that we’ve received against the candidate that we favored or the one that we wanted to see defeated. In either case, most people who have some essence of decency likely felt some degree of nausea at each new assault.

We’ll have to move quickly with our rite of ablution because the propaganda for the 2020 presidential election is probably being readied for the next attack on our sensibilities. The mud-slinging machine is being oiled up for the bout. There really is no rest for the weary, or the propagandist.

For the last presidential election (2016), campaigning started 597 days before the election when Ted Cruz (who was reelected as a senator from Texas on Tuesday) declared his candidacy. Writing for The New York Times, Emma Roller estimated that between the start of campaigning and the general election, “we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections.” International comparisons

Compared to other advanced industrial countries, the United States has a very long time allowed for campaigning. According to the Law Library of Congress, most countries have relatively brief campaign periods. Two countries that have campaign periods that are unusually long are Germany and Israel. In Germany, the Federal President announces the date of the election, and campaigning may start six months before that announced date. In Israel, campaigns for the Knesset usually last no more than 101 days, a little more than three months.

Other countries are more restrictive. The typical campaign period in the United Kingdom is five to six weeks. Campaigning in Australia is about the same, and voting is compulsory for all Australian citizens who are eighteen years of age or older. In France, the election process is a bit different, possibly because of its history of multiple major political parties. It usually requires two ballots to be cast. Still, the presidential campaign starts only two weeks before the first ballot. If a second ballot is necessary, the candidates have only one week between the two elections. For seats in the National Assembly, campaigning starts twenty days before the first ballot.

Armed with this knowledge, I’ll bet that many Americans who are campaign weary might consider moving to Paris or the French countryside where their TV programs are interrupted only by advertisements for dandruff shampoo or nasal decongestants, except for a couple of weeks every few years. Permanent campaigning

Just as the United States seems to be in a perpetual state of war, we seem to be subjected to the misery of political campaigns stacked one on top of the other. If you actually do the math for the past couple of elections, you could conclude that we get about 130 days off between political battles. But, many times, some of those “free days” are used to push special elections, like those for school boards or bonds to fund some sort of local project.

However, there is another type of permanent campaign. Here is a question for the politically naïve: What is the first thing that a newly elected member of the House of Representatives does? The answer: She or he begins campaigning for reelection. Although that is intended as a joke, it’s probably much closer to reality than most of us would like to believe.

Political scientist Patrick Caddell developed the idea of the “permanent campaign” when he was a young pollster for President Jimmy Carter. “Essentially,” he wrote, “it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” This concept was further developed by Sidney Blumenthal in his 1980 book, “The Permanent Campaign,” in which he explains that political consultants have replaced old-style party bosses. He said that this new style of politics started in 1968, and has been in effect since the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Contemporary examples

The public life of former President Bill Clinton illustrates this principle, beginning with his position as governor of Arkansas, followed by his two terms as president of the United States, and his continued prominence on the national stage as a cheerleader and sometimes surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Robert Reich, an economist who served as secretary of labor during the first Clinton Administration, agreed. He suggested that Bill Clinton has been in a state of “permanent election,” due to the impeachment proceedings during his presidency and his continuing support in the campaigns of his wife.

Blumenthal seems to believe that using this model places priority on short-term tactical gain over long-term goals. “The frenzied, headline grabbing atmosphere of presidential campaigns is carried over into the office itself, thus creating a permanent campaign ….”

Former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, Scott McClellan, seems to concur. In “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” he wrote that “the Bush White House suffered from a ‘permanent campaign’ mentality, and that policy decisions were inextricably interwoven with politics.”

In “Permanent Campaign Brushes Aside Tradition,” produced for the Brookings Institution, Corrado and Tenpas state that the Bush presidency was an example of how presidential travel can disproportionately target states of electoral importance. They point out that Bush embarked on 416 domestic trips during his first three years, 114 more than his predecessor for the comparable time period. During those years, 36 percent to 45 percent of those trips were to “swing” states.

President Barack Obama formed his reelection committee 804 days before his second term of office. But, that was fewer days than George W. Bush (846). And, both were well below the thresholds of Bill Clinton (1,062), George H.W. Bush (994), and Ronald Reagan (1,000). But President Donald J. Trump is a different story.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Z. Barabak states, “Unabashedly proclaiming his desire for a second term, Trump filed the paperwork establishing his 2020 reelection committee the day he took office and has already started fundraising, years before his predecessors began raking in cash.” This, I believe, is the “permanent campaign” taken to its ultimate form.

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at

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