We’re in the midst of the earliest campaign season ever. Or are we? Historian Michael Kazin makes the case that not only has permanent politicking being going on for years, but it's actually part and parcel of the electoral system itself.
Music Is My Radar
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now, something for all of you who don't really care about the Clinton/Obama dust-up, or why one of John Edwards' bloggers quit, or whether Mitt Romney or Sam Brownback was against abortion first--in other words, all of you who think that 22 months of Presidential campaigning is just too much. I mean, this has got to be the earliest ever campaign, right?
Well, not according to historian Michael Kazin. In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed, he wrote that the permanent campaign has been with us since at least 1826, when Martin Van Buren began building the first modern party, soon named the Democrats. He did it in part to avenge Andrew Jackson's unjust defeat in the previous election. MICHAEL KAZIN: He went around, really right after the 1824 election, beginning to talk to state politicos in various parts of the country, beginning to start newspapers, which would be pro-Jackson newspapers. The Whig Party, which began during the Jackson administration, did the same thing. And by the 1830s, it was not unusual to have three or four candidates in each major party vying for the nomination a couple of years ahead of time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who holds the title for the longest campaign ever? MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, I like to think it was William Jennings Bryan, who I've written a biography about recently. Bryan was defeated in the campaign of 1896, his epic campaign with William McKinley. And as soon as the campaign was over, he and his wife compiled his speeches, put together some memories of the campaign trail and put out a book, called The First Battle, which made it very clear that the next battle had just begun. And that was just one month after the election of 1896. And for the next four years, Bryan was doing little else but running for the presidency. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So it's one thing for candidates to wage all-out personal marketing campaigns years before the election. But it's another thing, Michael, for reporters to actually take the bait.
MICHAEL KAZIN: The press was, if anything, in the late 19th century, more competitive than now. Every local paper wanted to have a campaign story as soon after the last campaign as possible. They wanted to handicap who the front-runners would be for the next campaign. And so it was pretty much nonstop. Speeches that candidates gave were printed verbatim in the press, which doesn't happen now, really, because we can see them online [LAUGHS], so we don't have to read them.
But the best job in American journalism in the late 19th century was to be a political reporter, not just in Washington or New York, but everywhere in the country.
And the way you showed your mettle as a political reporter was by writing these long features about candidates when they came to your town, because, after all, political reporters needed the candidates and vice versa, just as now.
So these complaints about, oh, my God, the campaigns are starting so early – kind of crocodile tears, because journalists would not be in business if they didn't. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the scale of the machines that these candidates have put together? It seems that at least those are larger than they've ever been. These are multimillion-dollar operations with huge war rooms and loads of staff advisors, that sort of thing. MICHAEL KAZIN: Yes, I think that's certainly true, especially for Presidential candidates and gubernatorial candidates for the most part, too. And that didn't happen in Bryan's day, or, for that matter, in Van Buren's day. Then the party really was the organization. And now the individual candidate's organization is the organization and the individual candidate is responsible for raising most of the money. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A hundred years ago, when campaigns were cheaper, was there as much incentive to start stumping early? MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, not quite as much, because people could depend on the party dunning its members, its officeholders as well, for the campaign. But even then, money made a big difference. For example, in 1896, when Bryan ran for the first time against McKinley, the Democratic Party was only able to raise a quarter of a million dollars for that whole campaign [LAUGHS], whereas Republicans raised about 4 million dollars, which, in today's money, it's equal to about 100 million dollars, which is pretty much equal to the amount of money that each nominee for each major party is going to raise this year. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. So if you adjust for inflation, it's just as flooded with money as ever.
MICHAEL KAZIN: Yes. The only difference is that the candidate himself or herself doesn't have to spend so much of their time raising it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you hear commentators, editorial writers, callers into talk shows say, oh, my God, I can't believe this campaign is starting so early – I can't believe we're in the age of the permanent campaign – do you just roll your eyes and say, oh, it is as it ever was? Quit your bellyaching? MICHAEL KAZIN: I think that the people who say that are not so crazy about politics. Now, for people who love politics, as I do [LAUGHS], I must admit, have no problem with the permanent campaign or have a few problems with permanent campaign. We wish there were more substance to it, of course. We wish it were more dramatic, probably. But so many Americans who complain about campaigns are complaining about what they see as a sort of phoniness, inauthenticity in what the candidates are saying and how they're presenting themselves.
But when it's a candidate who seems to be very exciting, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, like Howard Dean, for a short time at least, in 2004, perhaps like Barack Obama today, that you hear that many people complain about the length of the campaign in relation to those specific candidates who have a real passionate following. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much. MICHAEL KAZIN: Glad to do it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kazin's recent book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Here's a clip of that permanent campaigner 100 years ago. [CLIP]: WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: There is no sound reason for secrecy in regard to campaign methods, and publicity will in itself prove a purifying influence in politics. [END OF CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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