And Now We Return to Our Scheduled Programming: Presidential Election Theater
The day after every midterm congressional election, conventional wisdom turns to “the presidential campaign starts today.”
In reality, the 2024 presidential campaign has been simmering for quite some time already, with plausible contenders out campaigning for co-partisans, giving “policy speeches” in Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to raise their national profiles.
I could even make a case that US president Joe Biden has been continuously running for president for 50 years now, and Donald Trump (who, as I write this, is expected to announce for 2024 any minute) for nearly 25.
Biden didn’t formally throw his hat in the Democratic Party’s nomination ring until 1988, but he clearly had the gleam in his eye and was laying the groundwork by the time he entered the Senate in 1973.
Trump “explored” seeking the Reform Party’s 2000 presidential nomination, but dropped out when he realized Pat Buchanan would easily best him … and spent the next 15 years trying to turn himself into Pat Buchanan 2.0 before going all-in.
California governor Gavin Newsom and Florida governor Ron DeSantis are clearly ramping up and watching for an opening to jump in if Biden or Trump retire from the field or look beatable.
And other, darker horses have their eye on the 2028/2032 ball while holding out hope for earlier fumbles they might recover and run into the Oval Office end zone.
Exhausting, isn’t it?
It’s always been this way, but it didn’t used to be this way.
That is, up-and-coming politicians have always seen the presidency in their futures … but until the 20th century they mostly didn’t “campaign” for it in the way they do today.
At one time, prospective presidents denied interest, “reluctantly accepted” their parties’ nominations, and let their supporters do the fighting for them in the nation’s newspapers and debate halls.
In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan (one of the first “modern” campaigners) barnstormed around the country by train, delivering more than 600 stump speeches, while Republican nominee William McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign from home, addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters at his house. McKinley won.
These days, we spend two solid years out of every four listening to (or trying to tune out) a herd of hucksters telling us why they or the person they support should be elected president. And it’s always — always! — “the most important election in history.”
And the tuning out gets more and more difficult. You can’t turn on the TV or radio without a dose of Presidential Election Theater. The roadways are awash with signs and bumper stickers. Email inboxes overflow with “send me/us $3 to beat [insert opponent here].”
Why? Because we reward that behavior with our money, our votes, and most of all with our attention.
Maybe we should start punishing it instead, by sending campaign emails to spam and changing the channel when Presidential Election Theater comes on.
If we stop treating every election like it really is “the most important election in history,” maybe we’ll get better candidates, with better ideas, more calmly and persuasively stated.
But I doubt it.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.