Perpetual Campaign, Perpetual Paralysis

The longer any campaign is, the less time elected officials have to do their job

By Dave Skinner

There I was, watching the 10 p.m. local TV news and weather. Mixed in with the asbestos and glyphosate lawsuit commercials (sponsored by Texas ambulance chasers, I checked) was a campaign ad for Greg Gianforte. It’s already stale and annoying, ridiculous given the election this ad aims to influence will be held November 3, 2020.

It’s 2019 right now! Over the next four-hundred-and-sixty-some days, multiple THOUSANDS of TV ads, spam emails, web pop-ups, whatever the heck have you, how are we hapless peons expected to pay attention?

While “name recognition” is vital in politics, endless repetition isn’t always a good thing. Remember Bob Kelleher? Starting in the 1960s, Kelleher ran a bazillion times as a Democrat, then a Green, winning only a seat to the state Constitutional Convention in 1972. From then on, he ran, ran, ran, and lost, lost, lost until he finally, finally, finally won a crowded Republican primary for the honor of running against Montana U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D) in 2008.

Kelleher scored 36 percent, beating his closest of five rivals by 14 points, none of whom have been heard from again.

I’m embarrassed to admit I used to think Montana’s campaign season was too short — or at least, Montana’s primary was too late in the year (June), handing the sexy national thunder to Iowa and New Hampshire. Never, ever has my pick in the presidential primary ever mattered.

But now, I’ve changed my mind. Campaign season is in full scream not just nationwide, but here in Montana? That’s just insane.

For example, Greg Gianforte has been campaigning almost non-stop since, what, sometime in 2015, when he started openly running for governor against incumbent Steve Bullock? Then, he actually announced in the same calendar year — Jan. 20, 2016 — as the November general election.

Gianforte lost, but not by very much. Next, President Donald Trump nominated Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to be Secretary of Interior, starting the circus all over again all through the spring of 2017 — and Gianforte had just come off a losing campaign, meaning his 2016 staffers were probably still looking for a job. He decks a reporter, still wins, has a little breather, then has to start running for 2018 — Democratic primary winner Kathleen Williams announced her challenge in October 2017 — more than a year early.

Seems Gianforte has more than one reason to jump into the 2020 governor race. The first reason is, he’s already treading water as a member of the minority, of a pond with 435 little fish. So what if he’s the richest fish? Of 30 bills and amendments he’s sponsored in the current Congress, just one each has passed the House or become law. The rest haven’t even gotten a hearing.

The second reason? Even with his own jet, the back-and-forth to the Beltway is a colossal waste of time away from Montana. Were I Gianforte, with his resources, since he’s stuck campaigning anyway, I’d certainly think hard about going after the job I wanted in the first place.

But I’d think a whole lot harder about retiring and enjoying life — most rational people would — which in turn leaves me to wonder: Are all our announced candidates (so far) certifiably crazy?

Campaign season should not re-start the day after an election. The longer any campaign is, the less time elected officials have to, um, “officiate,” or “govern” — to simply do the job they “won.” Every minute spent plotting to raise more money to buy more ads, is a minute forever lost from very pressing public business, a minute that could be vital in a grown-up discussion of very real issues of governance, with very real consequences.

In short, this new “normal” of perpetual campaigns is worsening what has long been a state of perpetual governmental paralysis.

Might the candidates suspend their campaigns until, say, January 2020? Nope. Might “news providers” honorably forgo the river of ad revenues until then? Heck no! But I certainly can suspend my attention until then — and I will, at least until after Steve Bullock has announced his new campaign.