Presidential Campaign Quality: Incentives and Reform

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9780131841406: Presidential Campaign Quality: Incentives and Reform

This book uses case stories, facts, statistics, and logic to argue that presidential campaigns can better serve ordinary citizens than they do now. It explains and then helps resolve a stubborn political paradox—showing what is wrong and suggesting how to fix it. A unique treatment of the subject matter advocates political reform based on greater citizen involvement—introducing readers to a plan of action and engaging them as part of the process. KEY TOPICS The book¿s research-based content (the author¿s original own, and up-top-date summaries of others¿) on all relevant topics translates cutting edge material into a readable and useful presentation. After an introductory chapter, the book describes the paradox, assesses the incentive system, examines campaign cases, and concludes with a reform proposal. For political journalists, politicians interested in reform, political scientists, and informed general citizens.

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Americans hate politics, and a hardy band of good government advocates would like to do something about it. Admittedly, this is not fresh news. Indeed, it may no longer even be a particularly welcome subject for discussion. The 2002 campaign finance reform legislation, for example, the latest achievement of a longstanding reform tradition, played to a largely indifferent national audience. For many, the ills of politics and how to fix them have been rehashed too often to be interesting. Others, noting that political reforms rarely actually fix anything, have simply abandoned hope. To them, unsatisfying politics, like air pollution, is something we just have live with. Taken all together, so many have become convinced that they have heard it all before that it is getting hard to write on this topic without sounding hackneyed.

So why am I adding another book to the stack?

Because the very durability of this much-worked issue shows that something is stuck. Important business remains unfinished. A stubborn, hard-to-resolve contradiction vexes our politics. This, and not some naive idealism, is what keeps the issue alive. It won't be laid to rest until we figure out why the kind of electoral politics that most Americans want—principled policy debates that clarify what is truly at stake in every national election, followed by high rates of voter participation—seems perpetually beyond their reach. The sources of our frustration can be elaborated as follows.

THE PROBLEM

What generations of experts, critics, and ordinary people have wanted is elections structured to give voters clear choices among policies as well as candidates, so that they can better understand and protect their interests, as representative democracy intends. This requires that candidates stick to the important issues facing the nation, avoiding both diversionary topics and off-putting campaign styles. It requires the print and broadcast journalists who cover and report the election to pressure the candidates in interviews and press conferences to stay focused on what really matters, and then to write and talk more about their qualifications and issue positions than about their campaign strategies. And it presumes that there are attentive citizens who, while preparing themselves to vote "smart," are also willing to punish departures from the public interest script at the polls, seeing to it that a political process that is supposed to protect their interests actually does so.

What we usually get instead, of course, is vastly different from any of this. Candidates do what it takes to win, which often means avoiding or distorting controversial high-priority issues, inflaming and exploiting divisive "hot button" issues, pandering to target voters, and digging up or manufacturing dirt on opponents for use in attack ads. Network television news executives, driven by sagging ratings, offer less and less campaign coverage during prime time and fill that reduced airtime with overhyped accounts of the campaign wars that mention issues only when they are being used as weapons in the fight for power. Journalist David Broder, a longstanding critic of status quo politics, adds to this picture by slamming "politicians who buy popularity with tax cuts and special-interest subsidies, while postponing action on important public needs," and journalists "who put profits and ratings above their obligation to provide substantive information and analysis of public issues."* Meanwhile, those eligible to vote, who increasingly find this spectacle irrelevant to anything they care about, are moving past anger to indifference, as more and more of them simply tune the whole thing out.

THE PARADOX

Clearly, the reality is very different from the wish. It is so different, in fact, that we should wonder why aspirations so out of touch with reality retain any power over the popular imagination at all. Why do so many critics cling to so apparently unrealistic a vision of the desirable? Why don't they articulate achievable goals instead, goals that might put the redemption of politics more easily within reach? My answer, detailed in the first chapter, involves the righteous anger felt by critics like David Broder when politicians show contempt for bedrock democratic values. But whatever the reason, this idealistic vision has proven to be just as durable, if not quite as pervasive, as the political reality it wants to change.

THE PLAN OF THE BOOK

This is the paradox that I use this book to examine. The point of the exercise is to see if it might finally be resolved, one way or another. To move past our frustration with election politics, we must either find a way to adjust our aspirations downward, thereby eliminating our chronic and not entirely healthy discontent with the political status quo, or figure out ways to establish the kind of political practice we want, something we have so far, despite repeated efforts, been unable to do. What follows is my effort to identify a course of action that makes sense, and to suggest how to make it happen.

I start with my core hypothesis: The paradox springs from a fundamental design flaw. In order to function as intended, any representative democracy needs an incentive system that will elicit the necessary behavior from candidates, the media, and voters. The reason we get a political reality so different from what we want, as I argue in Chapter 1, is that the incentive system that we have simply does not support what we want. Instead of evoking a policy debate, it sparks an unprincipled fight for power. Instead of attracting, informing, and inspiring voters, it drives them away.

This is a self-defeating state of affairs. It has fueled both chronic political discontent and nearly two centuries of efforts to reform the electoral process. But because we have overlooked the importance of incentives, we have usually misdiagnosed the problem, and the reforms we have put in place have not worked. One reason for our misdiagnoses is that the occasional campaign does manage to beat the odds and meet our expectations. In Chapter 2, I analyze two such campaigns: the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon contest and the 1992 Clinton-Bush-Perot confrontation. Both featured substantive policy debates followed by increases in voter turnout. Why? Because special circumstances like the threat of war faced in 1960, the economic anxiety that formed the 1992 campaign, or the passionate, policy-driven political conflicts that stamped historic elections like 1800, 1824, 1864, or 1936 can sometimes alter the mix of incentives in ways that fire authentic debates that fully engage an electorate made attentive by problems and crises.

But when crises do not arise, the result is usually self-serving candidate exchanges that clarify no national priorities or choices and spark little voter interest. Only rarely does a candidate believe it is in his interest to "go substantive" despite a lack of voter demand, as George W. Bush chose to do in 2000. More typical is "going negative," as in the mean-spirited campaign of 1988, or avoiding controversial but high-priority problems by "offering voters candy," as in the evasive campaign of 1996. Both are described at length in Chapter 3.

Does all this mean that only crisis can improve the quality of presidential campaigns, and then only temporarily? The fact that two centuries of reform have failed to generate any sustainable increases in voter turnout, or policy emphasis implies that the answer is yes. But there is another possibility worth considering. It is that past reformers have misconceived the nature of the problem. Unless we are willing to accept the political status quo, on the grounds that crisis improves the quality of campaigns when it really matters and that quality can otherwise safely be ignored, we need another approach to reform. That is the path I recommend here.

I develop a new approach to reform in the last four chapters. The rationale for doing so is in Chapter 4. There I review evidence that shows how voter participation and campaign policy focus contribute to the success of the government, and why, therefore, the longstanding efforts to increase both cannot be dismissed as merely a "good government" impulse that is without pragmatic grounding. The fact that consistently better campaigns would be useful to the polity in various ways is why we should not be content to rely solely on crises, but should instead seek to institutionalize improvements through more effective modes of reform.

The first step toward improvement is suggested in Chapter 5. Having established that the point of substantive campaigns followed by high voter turnout is to increase the chance for an impact on policy, the next task is to show how it can work. The vehicle need not always be a presidential policy mandate, as is often argued. It can instead result from what I call a policy signal, a broader mobilization of political will that depends less on who wins the election than on the degree of consensus generated among voters, media, and candidates about what the main national problems are and what might be done about them.

What forced policy signals in the cases I review was not candidate initiative, nor media crusading, but voter demand. When crises spark good campaigns, it is because voters insist, and because under certain circumstances their wishes cannot safely be ignored. The purpose of Chapter 6 is to spell out those circumstances. Not every expression of the public will commands the respect of candidates or reporters. As I show with examples, only citizen demands that constitute credible threats to their political and economic success are likely to get their attention. To achieve that, the demands have to be clear, stable, and backed by the threat of punishment.

A worthy if ambitious aim for campaign reform would be to equip voters to use credible threats to evoke both real public policy debates and civil campaign practices from candidates in noncrisis circumstances. An electorate motivated to do that would be anchoring an incentive system that supported the democratic ideal. The problem, of course, is how to give people not moved by fear a reason to move without it. That is why I return in the last chapter (Chapter 7) to the problem of motivation. It is inattention to motivation that has bedeviled most past electoral reform efforts aimed at citizens. For example, there have been many expansions of the right to vote, but turnout has never increased as much as expected. The reason is that it is one thing to expand the franchise, and quite another to get people to show up at the polls.

I deal first with the easy part, namely, describing a plan for readying citizens to assume expanded responsibility. The task is straightforward. First, continue to remove the barriers to engagement and voting, as many reforms have already done. Second, make a more comprehensive use of a wider range of both existing and yet-to-be-tried campaign-season opportunities to inspire interest and action. And third, add to the citizen portfolio the skills and techniques needed to make routine, coordinated demands on candidates. All well and good, we might agree. This is the sort of thing that is found in many idealistic reform proposals that don't work. The hard part is to give the American people, who now suffer from an incentive deficit that leaves half of them unwilling even to show up at the polls, a compelling reason to do even more.

The only conceivable way for that to happen is to revive a practice that has all but died out: instilling in each new generation of Americans an old-fashioned attitude—civic duty. This is no longer a priority in America. That is why the attitude is likely to be little more than an abstraction to many readers of this book—especially younger readers. But civic duty is a sentiment that can be taught, and that, if well taught, can function just like an incentive—in the same way, for example, that getting elected or making money are incentives. We see civic duty at work today when millions of older voters trudge to the polls despite the fact that there seems to be nothing really in it for them. But there is something in it for them: the satisfaction of doing something they are convinced they should do. A strong sense of personal obligation to the political process, and a willingness to act on it, are the drivers that, once in place, can impel voters equipped with the right skills and techniques to compete with candidates in the setting of campaign agendas.

Finally, the structure of this book reflects a simple theory of what I call "campaign quality." The theory emerged from a decade of research and analysis of presidential election campaigns that I and others undertook on behalf of the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation. Most of the evidence cited in chapters to follow is drawn from the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Markle presidential election studies. The surveys were conducted for the Markle project by Louis Harris and Associates in 1988 and by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1992 and 1996. The 1988 media content analysis was by Luce Press Clipping Service; 1992 and 1996 media and candidate content analysis was by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

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