U.S. Presidential Elections in Perspective
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE PARTY
“I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat,” the late humorist Will Rogers once said. Rogers often thrusted fun at institutions, but in his comment about the Democratic Party he was alluding to a basic tenet of American political life. Political parties in the United States are much less structured and much less homogeneous than in many other countries.
From the beginning, American political parties were umbrella organizations accommodating a wide range of political views and interests, says political scientist Stephen Rockwood, author of American Third Parties Since the Civil War. That is a major reason why third parties have largely been unsuccessful in the United States, he adds. The early Democratic Party, for example, was a coalition representing farmers, traders and artisans who often disagreed on policy and ideology. The coalition evolved into the modern Democratic Party, mushrooming to include groups as diverse as organized labor and business interests. In addition, the party encompasses geographical and regional distinctions. Southern Democrats, for example, tend to be much more conservative than Northern or even Western Democrats. Sometimes called Boll Weevils (named after an insect that infests cotton plants typically in the South) or more recently Blue Dogs (named from paintings by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue that feature a blue dog in political settings), these conservative Democrats often have voted with the Republican Party.
Similarly, the Republican Party also is a grand coalition - of business interests, conservative social groups and those favoring traditional values. Although the ideological chasm between conservative and moderate Republicans is not as wide as that between liberal and conservative Democrats, the Republican Party also remains far from homogeneous.
The umbrella nature of American political parties directly affects the political process. For example, electing a Democratic president and Democratic Congress is no assurance that the president’s legislative program will be passed. For example, Southern Democrats, who tend to be conservative, might vote with the Republicans on any number of issues and help defeat particular bills.
On the other hand, on some issues, many Northern Republicans might vote with the Democratic Party. Party whips, a hallmark of parliamentary systems, are much less powerful in the U.S. political system and rarely can compel a particular lawmaker to vote a particular way. Votes in the U.S. Congress are not typically cast wholly along party lines, as is the case in many parliamentary systems.
In addition, the separation of powers in the U.S. system ensures the independence of Congress from the executive branch - even if the same party occupies the executive and legislative branches. The saying “all politics is local” is a very powerful refrain in American political life, signifying that American lawmakers are much more prone to vote the interests of the district or state they represent, even if that conflicts with the interests of the executive branch, the party or even the national interest.
Because of weaker political parties in the United States, Americans tend to vote for the candidate as much as the party, and this trend is increasing, spurred by political reforms that began in the Progressive Era at the turn of the last century and that accelerated, beginning in the late 1960s, says political scientist Sandy Maisal. Americans identify much less with political party labels than in many other countries, he adds.
Maisal’s point is illustrated by U.S. opinion polling. According to a 1995 Gallup Poll, “twice as many Americans did not self-identify as belonging to one of the major political parties as had been the case when John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960.” The polls indicate that more than 40 percent of the electorate now considers itself to be independents, a much higher figure than in most countries with competing two-party systems.
Political parties in the United States always have been less structured organizations than elsewhere, says political historian Joel Sibley in his article, “The Rise and Fall of American Parties.” Sibley, too, says the tendency has been increasing, partly because of the growth in the number of primaries that has transferred power from party organizations and officials to the voters.
Sibley adds that it is important not to exaggerate the point. Political parties in the United States, he says, are healthy organizations that are well-funded and continue “to play a political role.” But “they can hardly be seen as the vigorous, robust and meaningful players within the nation’s political system that they once clearly were,” he adds.
Some commentators bemoan the relative weakness of political parties in the United States, the lack of party discipline and the emphasis on character and personality at the expense of issues. But others extol the benefits of a system they see as more democratic than parliamentary or other systems of government because it is the will of the individual candidate or lawmaker - and the people he or she represents - that is paramount rather than the interests of the party.
Whatever the benefits, or drawbacks, of the party political process in the United States, the important point to keep in mind is that a win for a political party in the United States does not necessarily mean a fundamental ideological shift, as is the case in many other countries. Local concerns, and the character and personality of the candidate, may play as much a part in voter preference as the party platform and ideology.
For better or for worse, the United States has moved “from a party-dominated system of campaign politics to a candidate-centered system,” says Paul Herrnson, author of National Party Organizations at Century’s End. He, and other observers, argue the trend will likely continue because of the growing importance of personality-dominated media as well as the acceptance of reforms instituted by the parties themselves.
FOREIGN POLICY AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
The president of the United States - whether it is Vice President Al Gore or Texas Governor George W. Bush - usually play a strong, active role in U.S. foreign policy. These were the consensus views of two separate panels of experts participating in recent discussions at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on how the candidates would govern. AEI brought together advisors, think tank observers and journalists to explore such aspects of foreign policy as how the candidates conceptualize the world, how they would respond to crises and how they would build support for their initiatives. In the opinion of Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, foreign policy “is typically the least discussed but most important responsibility” for a new president.
In the panel discussing the vice president, his national security advisor, Leon Fuerth, said Gore has the ability to spot events coming up, to recognize things of major import long before many others do, and to start gathering information and thinking about the policy implications at an early stage. “If it is an issue that is international in its repercussions,” Fuerth said, “his next stage is how to begin influencing opinion abroad in order to create the kind of international climate that will be needed one day to sustain an American initiative.” Gore has done this on such issues as global warming and arms control, Fuerth added.
Noting that Gore was one of the first people in the Clinton administration to urge a Western Hemisphere summit, Fuerth said the vice president recognizes the hemisphere is the country’s biggest economic partner, and culturally the United States is now demographically a nation which is, in part, Hispanic in its roots.
Discussing the vice president’s role in the Gore-Chernomyrdin meetings with Russian foreign ministers on arms control and other matters in the mid-1990s, Fuerth said he would “leave it to historians” to figure out their lasting consequences, but “I think we did have an impact.”
Attorney Dale Bumpers, a former U.S. senator from Arkansas who served with Gore in the Senate, said he believes Gore’s foreign policy would be very similar to that of President Clinton but also more aggressive and more hawkish. “He’s going to be a hands-on president and I think he understands all the problems with China, India, Pakistan, all of those things as well or better than anybody,” Bumpers added. “So I’m going to feel very comfortable with him.”
Attorney James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence in the Clinton administration who worked with Gore on the intelligence budget, said he believed there would be “far more focus on long-term objectives and on substance” in a Gore administration.
Former New York Congressman Steven Solarz said the major strategic challenge Gore faces is to get the benefit of the successes of the Clinton administration while making it clear to the American public that a Gore administration will not be an exact replica of Clinton’s. “One of the areas where the vice president has an opportunity to do that is in the area of foreign policy, particularly in the area of what we need to do about Saddam Hussein and Iraq,” Solarz said.
Los Angeles Times journalist Doyle McManus said that while there would be a lot of continuity between Clinton and Gore, there are several points where the vice president would differ. “One is use of force,” McManus said. “He has been readier to consider and to support military intervention, from Grenada in 1983, which was not the universal consensus among Democrats, to the Gulf War, to Bosnia in 1993. He is not a prisoner of the Vietnam syndrome.” McManus added that while Clinton’s interest in foreign policy has been “episodic,” Gore “has been interested in foreign policy for a very long time and would immerse himself in the agenda more deeply and more passionately.”
In the panel discussion on how Bush would govern, one of his foreign policy advisors, Robert Zoellick, a former undersecretary of state for economics, said the Texas governor has five priorities, the first of which is to focus on the big powers, “in particular, China and Russia, and to a degree India, and doing that through alliance relationships.”
Zoellick said the other priorities are to get a fresh look at nuclear security issues, deal with the Western Hemisphere, trade issues and a Middle East peace process based on Israel’s security. Calling Bush a “big picture person,” American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Richard Perle said that “on the occasions that I’ve heard the governor grappling with foreign policy issues, I’ve been impressed at how quickly he goes to the heart of the matter and how instinctively he understands the use of power.”
Criticizing Clinton and Gore for what he called “unsuccessful” dealings with “the Saddam Husseins and the Milosevics and the Kim Jong Ils and others,” Perle said “that will not happen in a Bush administration.” He said Bush has made it clear he would support opposition forces in Iraq by providing them with materiel and other assistance. Perle added that Bush believes the Iraq Liberation Act is “the right approach” and one that is capable of success.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that by referring to China as a “strategic competitor” of the United States, Bush did a “very clever thing - he distanced himself not only from Clinton, but to some extent his father’s (former President George H.W. Bush) old policy.” China, Kagan added, is going to be “the most interesting and hard to predict element” of Bush’s foreign policy.
Noting that the Texas governor has the ability to “bond” and has excellent relations with Mexico, Wall Street Journal writer Carla Robbins said Bush was willing to take risks because he is “a committed internationalist” and “a committed free trader.”
Bush seems to think that “good relationships with good people and free trade is the fundamental of the foreign policy with Mexico,” Robbins added. “It’s an interesting start for a guy who, when I went into this, I thought had no experience at all and came out thinking that I learned something from it.”
Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer said that when she talks with foreigners, her judgment is that they feel “rather secure” with Bush, and “they have felt remarkably unsecure in the last seven years.”
THE PROCESS OF SELECTION
The process to select the president of the United States and determine which political parties will control Congress and the 50 state governments officially kicks off with the January 24 Caucuses and the February First Primary Election. It will end with the November 7 general election and the January Twentieth inauguration. Caucuses are local-level meetings where voters, many of whom are political party activists, gather to state their preference for a specific candidate and select a proportional number of delegates to attend a state-level meeting to continue the process.
Primaries are elections held at the state level to indicate the voters’ candidate preferences and select delegates to the party nominating conventions. The primaries may be either closed to registered voters of a particular party, or open to voters who may cross over from one party to vote the other’s ballot.
Unofficially, Campaigns for the election of presidents in the USA are always underway since the day after the last election, that is to say that potential candidates for office begin to formulate their plans, line up support and money sources, and “test the waters.”
In this year’s presidential elections, Vice President Al Gore is the best known of the presidential candidates by virtue of serving in the number two post for the past seven years. But, he was vigorously challenged, for the Democratic nomination, by former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.
Six candidates were vying on the Republican side after several others announced their candidacies last year and then dropped out. From the beginning the one who went into the first events was Texas Governor George W. Bush, another acknowledged as front-runner; Arizona Senator John McCain, who for while was rapidly rising in early public opinion polls; millionaire publisher Steve Forbes and former Ambassador Alan Keyes, who both ran unsuccessfully in 1996; Utah Senator Orrin Hatch; and conservative activist Gary Bauer. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who broke rank with the Republican Party, is among a number of hopefuls that were seeking the Reform Party nomination.
Usually, The primary and caucuses season run through the first week of June, although an unofficial determination of the candidates should be made earlier in the year as a result of individual state contests. The Republicans often hold their convention July 31-August 3 in Philadelphia, and the Democrats often meet August 14-17 in Los Angeles. The Reform Party usually schedule its event for the second week of August in Long Beach, California. After the conventions, the heavy campaigning between the parties’ nominees begins in earnest.
There is nearly non-stop travel nationwide, several nationally televised debates, and countless news conferences, culminating with the November 3 general election. In addition, it happens that this year there is also at stake in the election. There are 33 of the 100 Senate seats, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 11 gubernatorial seats and thousands of state and local level offices. Nineteen of the 33 Senate races are for seats currently held by Republicans, who currently hold a 55-45 majority in the upper chamber. This party also currently has a 10-seat majority in the House.
With the presidential election that took place in early November, most U.S. and foreign media were focusing on the race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. But it is important to stress that, under the U.S. system, separate elections will be held for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
In the United States, the president, the leader of the executive branch of government, is elected by the Electoral College votes and indirectly by all of the people, as is his vice president. He is elected for a term of four years and may be re-elected for another four-year term. But there is a two-term limit. The president appoints the members of his Cabinet who do not sit in the legislature, as is the case under parliamentary systems of government. This is because, in the U.S., the three branches of government-executive, legislative, and judicial - are separate, and under the Constitution, check and balance each other.
On the same day that Americans go to the polls to elect the next president, they also will separately elect senators and representatives. All 435 seats in the two-year-term House of Representatives, and one-third in the six-year-term Senate, are up for election. These elections are critical since a president can only pass his program with sufficient support in the two legislative bodies that form the U.S. Congress.
For the last four years, the United States has divided government at the federal level. The presidency is held by a Democrat, Bill Clinton. But both Houses of Congress have Republican majorities. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, however, was slim – 222-209, with two independents and two vacancies – and most commentators speculated that either party could win a majority in November. Previous predictions are that the Republicans – with a 54-46 margin – will retain control of the U.S. Senate.
The separation of powers in the U.S. system may be confusing to some observers more familiar with parliamentary and other forms of government. But the U.S. Constitution provides for divided government, if that is what the people want. The principle is enshrined in the doctrine of separation of powers – of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government – that the Founding Fathers believed was necessary to prevent arbitrary rule.
The importance of this doctrine in American governance has long been stressed by constitutional lawyers, but never more eloquently than by Louis Brandeis, one of the most renowned Supreme Court justices. Speaking in 1926, Brandeis said, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency, but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”
The concept was rooted in the American experience of colonial domination by Great Britain. The Founding Fathers did not want to replace arbitrary power exercised from London with arbitrary power exercised from the U.S. capital. So they looked for a new model of government. A primary influence on their thinking was a Frenchman, the Baron de Montesquieu. In his book, On The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, Montesquieu argued for the idea of separate but equal powers among the three branches of government. “When the law making and law enforcement powers are united in the same person,” he wrote, “there can be no liberty.”
James Madison, regarded as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, believed strongly in Montesquieu’s vision of the separation of powers and sought to include this principle in the U.S. system. “The accumulation of all powers — legislative, executive, judiciary — in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” Madison wrote.
The Founding Fathers were aware that the separation of powers could lead to weak government. As far as is known, none of them used a word like “gridlock,” but they clearly knew that it could occur in a system based on separation of powers. But because of their experience with colonial rule, they were much more afraid of government that was too strong than government that was too weak.
As George Washington, the nation’s first president, remarked in his farewell address: “It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres; avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another.”
If the American people want strong government, they are free to elect a president and Congress from the same party – and more so, free to elect persons of the same ideological persuasion. But there have been many times in American political history when, in effect, the American people have voted to check the power of the president by electing a Congress dominated by members of a different party or vice versa. That is the case of 1996-2000 – with a Democratic president and Republican control of both Houses of Congress. In the 1980s the reverse was true. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush held the White House, but the Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives throughout the 1980s and the U.S. Senate for part of the decade.
At other times, especially during crucial periods in the nation’s history, Americans have voted for strong, undivided government. This was the case, for example, in 1932 when the country was facing the Great Depression. In that year, the people elected not only Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) but they also voted in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. The Democrats won 313 seats in the House of Representatives that year and 59 seats in the Senate. The Democratic sweep enabled FDR to pass extensive legislation known as the New Deal.
In more recent decades, however, divided government at the federal level has been more the rule than the exception. To some observers, such limits on the power of the central government – even when sanctioned by the people – may seem confusing, self-defeating and obstructionist.
But Americans believe the separation of powers has served their country well – and not only Americans. An Englishman once wrote in a widely quoted book, “The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is dominated by the executive.” The Englishman was Edward Gibbon, and the book was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE
When American voters go to the polls to vote for president, many believe that they are participating in a direct election of the president. Technically, this is not the case, due to the existence of the Electoral College, a constitutional relic of the 18th century.
The Electoral College is the name given to a group of “electors” who are nominated by political activists and party members within the states. On election day these electors, pledged to one or another candidate, are popularly elected. In December, following the presidential vote, the electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast ballots for president and vice president. To be elected, a president requires 270 electoral votes.
In recent history, the electors have never cast their ballots against the winner of the popular vote. For all intents and purposes, the Electoral College vote, which for technical reasons is weighted in favor of whoever wins the popular election, increases the apparent majority of the winning candidate and lends legitimacy to the popular choice. It is still possible, however, that in a close race or a multiparty race the Electoral College might not cast 270 votes in favor of any candidate – in that event, the House of Representatives would choose the next president.
The Electoral College system was established in Article 2, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution. While it has been the subject of mild controversy in recent years, it is also seen as a stabilizing force in the electoral system.
HOW THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE WORKS TODAY
Registered voters in the 50 states and the District of Columbia cast ballots for president and vice president on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November in a presidential election year.
The candidates who win the popular vote within the state usually receive all the state’s electoral votes. (Technically, all the electors pledged to those candidates are elected.)
A state’s number of electors equals the number of senators and representatives from that state. The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three electoral votes.
The electors meet and officially vote for president and vice president on the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December in a presidential election year. A majority of the vote is required for a candidate to be elected. Since there are 538 electors, a minimum of 270 is necessary to win the electoral college.
If no candidate for president receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives must determine the winner from among the top three vote-getters in the Electoral College. In doing so, members of the House of Representatives vote by states, with each state delegation casting one vote.
If no candidate for vice president receives a majority of the electoral vote, the Senate must determine the winner from among the top two vote-getters in the Electoral College.
The president and vice president take their oath and assume office on the next January 20, following the election.
VOTING STRENGTH BY STATE
Alabama –9, Alaska – 3, Arizona – 8, Arkansas – 6, California – 54, Colorado – 8, Connecticut – 8, Delaware – 3, District of Columbia – 3, Florida – 25, Georgia – 13, Idaho – 4, Illinois – 22, Indiana – 12, Kansas – 6, Kentucky – 8, Louisiana – 9, Maine – 4, Maryland – 10, Massachusetts – 12, Michigan – 18, Minnesota – 10, Missouri – 11, Montana – 3, Nebraska – 5, Nevada – 4, New Hampshire – 4, New Jersey – 15, New Mexico – 5, New York – 33, North Carolina – 14, North Dakota – 3, Ohio – 21, Oklahoma – 8, Oregon – 7, Pennsylvania – 23, Rhode Island – 4, South Carolina – 8, South Dakota – 3, Tennessee – 11, Texas – 32, Utah – 5, Vermont – 3, Virginia – 13, Washington – 11, West Virginia – 5, Wisconsin – 11, Wyoming – 3, the total sums up to be 538.
From the viewpoint of those running for public office, election campaigns are mostly composed of an extensive effort to communicate with divergent audiences. Candidates must get their message across to party officials, party members, potential contributors, supporters, volunteers, journalists, and, of course, voters. Ultimately, all campaign activities are secondary to a candidate’s efforts to communicate with voters. Accordingly, it is not surprising to learn that the largest share of persuasive messages to voters, and polling to learn the concerns that voters have and the opinions they hold.
Over the past three decades, polling has become a principal research tool for developing campaign strategy in American elections. The major elements of that strategy consist of the answers to two simple questions:
(1) what are the target audiences that a campaign must reach?
(2) what messages does it need to deliver to these audiences? Polling is essential for answering both of these questions.
TRACKING THE CAMPAIGN
Behind the scenes, most major political campaigns rely on polling from the beginning to the end of the election race. The typical candidacy will be formulated on the basis of a “benchmark” poll taken about eight months before the election. This expensive survey may take as much as 30 minutes to complete over the phone and will include a large enough sample (usually around 1,000 to 1,500) so that inferences can be drawn about important subgroups of voters. Once the campaign has begun and voters are being bombarded with competing campaign messages, the pollster returns to the field, often several times, using much shorter questionnaires in order to get an idea of how the opinions have changed from the original benchmark.
A number of well-funded campaigns – usually those for president or for senator or governor in larger states – recently have begun using “tracking surveys” to follow the impact of campaign events. The pollster completes, say, 400 interviews on each of three nights. The resulting 1,200 voters constitute an adequate sample with an error rate of about 3 percent. On the fourth night, the pollster calls another 400 voters and adds that to the database, dropping off the answers of those voters reached on the first night. And this process continues, sometimes for six months of campaigning, so that the sample rolls along at a constant 1,200 drawn from the previous three nights. Over time, the resulting database will allow the pollster to observe the effect of campaign events – such as televised debates, a major news story or the start of a new advertising theme – upon voter attitudes and preferences. If, for example, the lines indicating support for two candidates are roughly parallel until the point at which the opponent started attacking on the basis of character rather than policies, and after that point the two lines start to diverge as the opponent’s support increases, then the pollster had better figure out a way of countering the character message being used by the opponent or the race will be lost.
Figuring out how to counter the opponent’s attack may involve examining particular subgroups in the electorate, or it may call for a new message from the injured campaign, but in either case, the response will be based on survey research. Polling, American politicians would agree, has become an essential ingredient of campaign strategy.
ELECTRONIC MEDIA: EQUAL TIME
Under the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, radio and television stations in the United States have enormous latitude in their coverage of candidates and elections. But according to experts, one regulation that has remained, and is likely to remain, is the Equal Time rule.
Under a provision of the 1934 Communications Act, if a broadcast station provides time for one political candidate, it must do so for his or her opponents. This provision – Section 315 of the law – is known as the Equal Time rule. It states: “If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any political office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station.”
It is a simple concept, but interpretation of the Equal Time rule has evolved over the years as politics and technology have changed. It continues to evolve. In a recent interview, Robert Baker, of the political program section of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government regulatory agency for the U.S. communications industry, said that “the three principal components of the rule are a requirement that if broadcasters sell time to political candidates they must treat them all equally, allow them to purchase time at favorable rates and not attempt to censor the content of their ads.”
In addition to paid political advertising, the law also applies to some programs paid for by the stations in which candidates may appear without purchasing the airtime. Baker explained that as a result of an amendment to Section 315 in 1959, the rule does not apply to regular news and public affairs programming. Thus, if a “legally qualified” candidate appears on a bona fide news program, the station is under no obligation to provide time to other candidates.
The question of what is a bona fide news program, however, at a time when news and entertainment are often mixed in the same program is a subject of much debate in the communications industry. According to Dwight Teeter and Don Duc, authors of Law of Mass Communications, the FCC “has expanded its category of broadcast programs exempted from political access requirements to include entertainment shows that provide news or current event coverage as regularly scheduled segments of the program.”
The act stipulates certain requirements for a candidate to be “legally qualified,” the most important of which is that he or she be a declared candidate in accordance with applicable state and federal laws. According to broadcast historians, one of the most celebrated tests of this aspect of the rule occurred in December 1967 when the three major commercial television networks carried an hour-long interview with President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. It was only a few months before the New Hampshire primary, the first major test in the 1968 race for the presidency.
Eugene McCarthy, who had announced his own candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination before the broadcast, requested “equal time” from the networks on the grounds that President Johnson was a legally qualified candidate for the same nomination. The appeal was denied because Johnson had not, at that point, declared that he was a candidate for reelection. This is one reason why candidates time an announcement that they are running for office very carefully, so as not to trigger the Equal Time rule requiring stations to give broadcast time in equal measure to their opponents.
There are certain, narrow exceptions to the Equal Time rule that have evolved over the years, however. The most important exception concerns national televised debates involving the major presidential candidates. Not long after debates among the leading candidates for president became a standard component of campaigns in 1976, the FCC moved to exempt them from the Equal Time rule.
Since November 1983, the FCC has allowed the debates to be considered “bona fide news events,” thus triggering the exemption. Under the old rule, even minor candidates could have requested equal time during the presidential debates, a problem that led organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, to cover the debates, which the networks then covered as news events. Baker explained that although there is now no requirement that all candidates be included in the presidential debates, the FCC has urged broadcasters not to “favor or disfavor” any particular candidate.
Although the Equal Time rule is concerned with equal access, not initial access, for candidates, a 1979 ruling by the FCC, in effect, required stations to give candidates for federal office “reasonable access” to the airwaves. The case resulted from a request by then-President Jimmy Carter to buy airtime for his reelection campaign. The networks denied the request on the grounds that no equal time provision was at issue and it was too early in the campaign. The FCC, and ultimately the Supreme Court, ruled that the networks should have provided the time. This is now known as the “reasonable access” rule.
In the past, the Equal Time rule was often confused with the Fairness Doctrine, which required that broadcasters “operate in the public interest and afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public interest.” The Fairness Doctrine ceased to be a requirement in 1987. Baker explained that although a few minor elements remain, “essentially the Fairness Doctrine was abolished.”
Critics have complained that since the Fairness Doctrine was shelved, stations have become less responsible in the coverage of issues. But opponents of the Fairness Doctrine say it was an unnecessary regulatory requirement on broadcasters that other media, such as newspapers, were never required to meet. Since there are now many more broadcast stations than newspapers, opponents say viewers have enough choice on coverage of issues without regulation, especially in an age of hundreds of stations courtesy of cable and satellite television companies.
As new democracies around the world wrestle with issues of regulation in broadcasting to ensure fairness for political candidates in elections, the U.S. experience is an indication that even simple rules are not always easy to implement in practice and must be periodically reevaluated in the light of changing circumstances, both technological as well as political.
A PRIMER ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE
Federal campaign finance law applies to elections involving the president and vice president of the United States and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 and its amendments cover three broad areas: public disclosure of funds raised and spent to influence federal elections, restrictions on contributions and expenditures, and the public funding of presidential campaigns.
The FECA requires all candidates, committees of political parties, and political action committees (PACs) to file periodic reports on funding with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Candidates, for example, must identify all party committees and PACs that give them contributions and all individuals who give them more than $200 in a single year. And they must disclose all payments that exceed $200 per year to an individual or vendor.
The law places limits on contributions by individuals and groups to candidates, political parties, and PACs. An individual may give $1,000 to a candidate per election, $20,000 to a national party committee per calendar year, and $5,000 to any other political committee per calendar year; an individual’s total contributions cannot exceed $25,000 per year. Groups that contribute to election campaigns also must abide by specific limits depending on the nature of their organization.
The FECA prohibits corporations, labor organizations, federal government contractors and foreign nationals from making contributions to election campaigns and from spending money directly – for example, on advertising – to influence federal elections. However, corporations and labor unions may form separate PACs that raise money and support federal candidates and political committees.
Qualified presidential candidates may receive public money for their campaigns from a special fund maintained by the U.S. Treasury. This fund is financed exclusively by voluntary contributions from U.S. taxpayers, who may choose to contribute $3 of their annual federal income tax to the fund. Candidates may accept public money for either their primary or general election campaign or for both. However, if they do accept public funds, they must comply with spending limits and other restrictions imposed by the FEC.
Candidates in the presidential primaries are eligible to receive public money to match the private contributions they raise from individuals; contributions from groups are not matched. While individuals may contribute up to $1,000, only the first $250 is “matchable.” To become eligible to receive public funds, candidates must raise $5,000 in matchable contributions in each of 20 different states.
The nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties are each eligible to receive a grant from the FEC to cover all the expenses of their general election campaign, and they may not spend more than the amount of the grant. In 1996, the grant was $61.82 million per candidate. A third party presidential candidate may qualify to receive some public funds after the general election if he or she receives at least 5 percent of the popular vote.
Each major political party also receives public funds to pay for its national convention. In 1996, the two major parties each received $12.36 million. Other parties may be eligible for partial public financing of their conventions if their nominees received at least 5 percent of the popular vote in the previous election.
THIRD PARTIES IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
If Americans vote in November in the traditional way, either Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, or Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, will be the next president of the United States. That is because the United States basically has a two-party system. But there also is a long tradition of third party bids for the presidency. The year 2000 is no exception.
The three leading third parties in this year’s election are the Green Party, whose nominee is consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Reform Party, whose nominee is political commentator Pat Buchanan, and the Libertarian Party, whose nominee is Harry Browne, a former investment counselor. Currently, Nader stands at between 2 and 4 percent in the polls, depending on the poll. His supporters include Green Party enthusiasts as well as disaffected Democrats and Republicans who dislike the nominees of their respective parties.
The Greens are a worldwide movement committed to environmental causes, economic empowerment and to various social issues. The movement has had particular success at the ballot box in Western Europe. Green Party USA was organized in the 1980s and now has grass-roots organizations in all 50 states. This is the second time that Nader, who is a household name in America, has been the party’s nominee. He was on the ballot in 22 states in 1996 but won none of them. In a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said he would be on the ballot in at least 45 states this year.
The Reform Party was founded by multi-millionaire Texas businessman Ross Perot in the early 1990s. It was an outgrowth of his organization, “United We Stand America,” formed in 1992. The party stands for term limits for lawmakers, campaign finance reform and protection for American workers against what it regards as unfair free trade policies. It tends to be liberal to moderate on social issues. A conflict of interest between two factions at the Reform Party Convention resulted in a squabble over $12.5 million dollars in federal campaign funds. Pat Buchanan, the Reform nominee, received the money.
The Libertarian Party was established in 1971. Its major principles are commitment to individual rights, freedom of communication, the abolition of the income tax and an end to the prosecution of victimless crimes, including drug offenses. The Libertarians oppose intrusive action by governments of the Left or the Right. The party’s statement of principles says individuals “have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they don’t forcibly interfere with the equal rights of others.”
In addition to the Greens, the Libertarians and the Reform Party, many other political parties will be fielding presidential candidates this year. Based on historical precedent, however, the overwhelming odds are in favor of the Democratic or Republican nominee winning the presidency, although a strong third party showing by one or more of the third parties could affect the outcome of the race between the two leading candidates.
The reason why a third party nominee stands little chance of winning the presidency lies in the nature of the American political system and American history. Stephen Rockwood, author of American Third Parties Since the Civil War cites several, specific reasons:
The U.S. election system, which is based on “winner-takes-all” rather than proportional representation The tradition of two main parties acting as “large umbrellas” for a variety of interests Media concentration on the two major parties rather than the myriad of smaller parties
Even so, there have been significant, third party attempts to win the presidency at numerous times in American history. Although not successful, they have significantly affected the public debate and the policies of the two major parties. Since World War II, for example, there have been six noteworthy third party presidential bids.
`1948. The Dixiecrats led by Strom Thurmond, currently a senator from South Carolina. The Dixiecrats were a group of dissident Democrats who opposed the racial integration policies of Democrat nominee Harry Truman. Thurmond garnered only 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but because he confined his campaign to the South, won four states there. Thurmond’s purpose was not to win the presidency, but to deny victory to Truman by winning traditional Democratic states in the region. The effort failed, however. Truman won without the four Southern states.
1948. The Progressive Party led by Henry Wallace, a former vice president of the U.S. in the Roosevelt administration. Wallace ran to Truman’s left favoring a radical continuation of New Deal policies and cooperation with the Soviet Union. But Wallace won only 2 percent of the vote, partly because of perceived Communist influence in his campaign. Truman beat back all three challenges – from Wallace, Thurmond and his major opponent, Republican Thomas Dewey – and won, despite all predictions.
1968. The American Independence Party led by George Wallace, the pro-segregation governor of Alabama. Wallace, who won just under 14 percent of the vote, took votes away from both major party nominees, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon narrowly won the election. Wallace ran again in 1972 as a Democrat, but his effort was effectively aborted when he was shot and seriously wounded while campaigning in Maryland.
1980. The National Unity Movement led by former Illinois Congressman John Anderson, a liberal-to-moderate Republican. Anderson won 7 percent of the vote, again taking votes away from both major party nominees, Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan. In the end, however, Anderson did not dampen what turned out to be a Reagan landslide.
1992. United We Stand America led by billionaire businessman Ross Perot. This was the precursor group of the Reform Party. Perot’s strong showing – 19 percent of the vote – was documented to have most hurt Republican nominee President George Bush. Democrat nominee Bill Clinton won the election.
1996. Reform Party led by Ross Perot. Perot’s showing was much weaker than in 1992 – 8.5 percent of the vote – but is still considered significant by third party standards. Perot, however, did not significantly affect the presidential race since Bill Clinton won a comfortable victory over Republican nominee Senator Bob Dole.
Third parties, while occasionally significant in presidential races, tend to be short-lived in American politics. “It’s very rare that a third party candidate lasts more than one election,” says historian Michael Beschloss. Perot is an exception, although it is considered unlikely that he will be the Reform Party’s nominee this year. “The general tradition in American history is that these third parties are organized around usually a single person or issue or both, and usually that does not extend to a long period of time,” Beschloss adds.
While sometimes having significant impact at the presidential level, third parties historically have had negligible effect in races for Congress. Only the two major parties have the resources to mount campaigns in all the congressional districts across the United States and that is unlikely to change, according to experts. Currently, there are only two independents in the U.S. House of rest are either Democrats or Republicans.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WORDS IN POLITICS
When reviewing the speech prepared for delivery to Congress after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – “a date that will live in history” – Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) spotted the cliche and changed history to “infamy.” Like the greatest presidents, FDR knew that one word, not just one speech, can make a difference.
The most revered U.S. presidents are remembered for far more than their speeches. But all the presidents considered great by historians have been accomplished communicators. Often, their words linger in the people’s imagination far longer than their specific achievements, testimony to their sense of history as well as their capacity for language.
Perhaps the greatest communicator who ever occupied the office of president – certainly the most eloquent – was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president (1861-1865), who led the country during the Civil War. His Gettysburg Address (1863), considered by many to be the finest political speech in the English language – and only 271 words long – ends with these timeless words: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, and that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
No less eloquent, however, was Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1864. Again Lincoln saved his most memorable words for his closing sentence: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was president during the greatest threat to the Republic’s survival. A later Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), led the nation at a more tranquil time when the United States was emerging onto the world stage. His famous dictum, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” entered the general, and not just the political, lexicon – one of a number of blunt admonitions fro the former leader of the “Rough Riders” (the name of the cavalry unit he led during the Spanish-American War).
But Theodore Roosevelt also was capable of eloquence as well as bluntness. “The credit belongs to the man,” he said, “who is in the arena, whose face is marred by sweat and dust and blood – who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause – who, at best, if he wins, knows the thrill of high achievement – and if he fails, at least fails, while daring greatly.”
In the second half of the 20th century, the eloquence of two presidents with very different ideological views is most remembered – Democrat John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). Both had a keen awareness of the power of language in connecting with voters and took great care with both the preparation and delivery of their speeches. Their words resonate long after particular programs and policies are forgotten.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place – to friend and foe alike – that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today, at home and around the world.” John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, given on a cold, snowy day in January 1961, is perhaps the best remembered of all inaugural speeches. Thus began the world’s love affair with the presidency of John Kennedy that lasted just two years and 10 months.
Twenty years after the election of the nation’s youngest elected president, another leader strode confidently onto the American and world stage – Republican President Ronald Reagan who boldly declared that America should never be a land of “small dreams.” In his second inaugural address, given in January 1985, Reagan spoke of the right to democracy. “Since the turn of the century, the number of democracies has grown fourfold,” he noted. “Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than in our own hemisphere. Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.”
But perhaps Reagan’s best-remembered words were those he spoke on January 28, 1986, following the “Challenger” space shuttle tragedy. The whole speech is unforgettable – its last sentence particularly – devoted to the memory of those who died aboard the ill-fated flight. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.’”
Not all U.S. presidents, who are remembered for their gift with words, were noted for their eloquence. Some were admired for their use of direct, no-nonsense language – none more so than Democratic President Harry Truman (1945-1953). Two of his most famous contributions are used in everyday language today – “the buck stops here”(a slogan he kept on his desk), and “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Harry Truman came to the presidency after the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. FDR had been president of the United States longer than anyone else – 12 years – during the two greatest threats to the nation’s survival since the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. For the manner in which Roosevelt dealt with those challenges, many historians consider him to be the greatest U.S. president, certainly of the last century.
But Roosevelt’s capacity with language, as well as his achievements, was surely part of his enormous success with the American people. He had a way of encapsulating large issues in simple sentences, of communicating to the common man in an uncommon way – and not only to Americans. As the writer Isaiah Berlin said, he became a hero to “the indigent and oppressed far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world.”
On one occasion – in 1937 – FDR spoke of his hopes for the future: “You ought to thank God tonight if, regardless of your years, you are young enough in spirit to dream dreams and see visions – dreams and visions about a greater and finer America that is to be; if you are young enough in spirit to believe that poverty can be greatly lessened; that the disgrace of involuntary unemployment can be wiped out; that class hatreds can be done away with; that peace at home and peace abroad can be maintained; and that one day a generation will possess this land, blessed beyond anything we know now, blessed with those things – material and spiritual – that make man’s life abundant. If that is the fashion of your dreaming, then I say, hold fast to your dream. America needs it.”
PRESIDENTIAL HUMOR: ITS IMPORTANCE IN U.S. POLITICS
When Republican President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was shot and seriously injured not long after his presidency began in 1981, he reportedly asked his doctors: “Please assure me you are all Republicans.” Later he joked about his close encounter with death with his wife, Nancy. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he remarked.
The president’s humor – under the most trying of circumstances – endeared him to the American people, even to many who disagreed with him ideologically. Americans always have liked presidents who don’t take themselves too seriously. For this reason, a good sense of humor is politically important. Some presidents have had one. Others, conspicuously, have not.
Ronald Reagan clearly fell into the category of presidents with a strong sense of humor. Sometimes, the humor was evident in his speeches. But often it was spontaneous, such as in response to a question. One of his most famous lines occurred in a 1984 presidential debate with his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Asked whether age would be a problem in a second term, Reagan responded: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Reagan was the oldest president ever elected. The youngest elected president, Democrat John F. Kennedy (JFK)(1961-1963), was widely admired for his wit. Typical was Kennedy’s remark – now legendary – made at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human knowledge that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
JFK’s romance with the English language served his natural sense of humor well. A prodigious reader, he once complained about what he viewed as a decline in the quality of books being published. “I’m reading more and enjoying it less,” he quipped. In his formal speeches, Kennedy frequently invoked the memory of another Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
FDR (1933-1945), who was president during the two greatest crises the country faced since the Civil War – the Great Depression and World War II – also had an impeccable sense of humor, at no time more evident than in the famous Fala episode, in which Roosevelt responded to Republican charges that he used taxpayer money to rescue his pet dog. The speech, which was filmed, shows FDR’s incredible timing and delivery, as well as his way with words. He said:
“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers, in Congress and out, had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty-eight million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” FDR’s humor disarmed his Republican opponents much more than a righteous defense of his action could possibly have done – a prime example of the political effectiveness of humor.
FDR was also author of two funny lines about political ideologues. “A conservative,” he once said, “is a man with two perfectly good legs who has never learned to walk forward.” But he also said: “A radical is a man who has both feet firmly planted – in the air.” On one occasion, when someone asked him how he held his composure and maintained his humor through the turbulent times of the 1930s and 1940s, the irrepressible FDR, who had contracted polio as a young man, responded: “If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe – after that everything would seem easy.”
FDR had a great sense of the irony in life, which he was able to communicate to the common man as well as to the political sophisticate. But it is not just 20th century presidents who used humor to connect with voters. Earlier presidents also knew the power of laughter.
Republican Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), often thought of as a somber leader, was frequently witty. Once, becoming bored at one of the many ceremonies he felt obliged to attend in his honor, he said: “I feel something like a man being ridden out of town on a rail. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d rather walk.”
“You can fool all the people part of the time and part of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time,” is a witty remark still often quoted today. But few people know that it was Lincoln who coined the phrase. Once referring to a lawyer, the nation’s Civil War president exclaimed: “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met.”
Few presidents had a greater wit than Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), author of many a humorous admonition. “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad;” and, “He has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair,” are just two of his more well-known quotes.
Not all the presidents known for their humor are considered accomplished leaders. Republican President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was reputed to often sleep 12 hours a day and was prone to such few pronouncements that he was known as “Silent Cal.” He once remarked, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t repeat it.” At the time, Coolidge was known as rather solemn, but he confronted that criticism head on saying, “I always figured the American people wanted a solemn ass for a president, so I went along with them.” When Coolidge died, Dorothy Parker, a writer known for her wicked wit, quipped, “How can they tell?”
Coolidge may not be regarded as one of the country’s great presidents, but he is remembered for his sense of humor, according to Vic Fredericks, author of The Wit and Wisdom of the Presidents. Fredericks says the American people are somehow reassured by leaders who can appreciate the less serious side of life – evidence perhaps of a well-rounded stability that is important in those exercising great power.