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Jan 31, 2000 | 06:00 GMT

10 mins read

The American Presidential Campaign: The View Abroad


With Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, the U.S. presidential campaign will be well under way. While they may not like it, Americans are used to the mix of money, media and personality that selects the occupant of the White House. But there is another constituency: foreigners trying to make sense of U.S. foreign policy. The year-long campaign obsession promises to weaken the ability of President Clinton to conduct foreign policy. But more importantly, contemporary campaigns have broken an organic connection between country and candidates, who can neither address fundamental issues nor speak authoritatively on behalf of the nation. At home, this kindles frustration. Abroad, this leads to misinterpretation and miscalculation.


The American presidential campaign began last week with the Iowa caucuses and proceeds this Tuesday to the New Hampshire primaries. The nearly year-long campaign will be a series of waves: primaries, followed by lull when contenders emerge in March, a hiatus over the summer, pierced by the spectacles of party conventions and then the full force of the fall general election campaign.

No other nation on earth does it like the United States. Explaining the American political process to non-Americans is very much like explaining baseball; they understand the individual words but not the whole concept. This is dangerous. Foreign nations make their policy with the United States very much in mind. Foreign governments make moves thinking that they understand the meaning of U.S. politics - when, in fact, they understand nothing at all. The possibility for misunderstanding is enormous. This is particularly crucial when major transformations are taking place in the global system.

This year's campaign graphically presents the problem of the contemporary presidential campaign. President Bill Clinton's foreign policy has been - to say the least - difficult for many foreign governments to comprehend. It has been difficult for leaders abroad to predict when the administration would choose compromise and when, instead, it would fight. Strategic goals and tactical ones have become obscured. Direction of U.S. policy has been difficult to discern. In the coming year, the obsession that is a presidential campaign will exacerbate this trend. Though the chief architect of foreign policy, Clinton will become increasingly isolated, irrelevant and weaker as the political system searches for his successor.

But it is not as if a foreigner could detect any greater clarity by studying the Republican and Democratic campaigns now underway. Indeed, foreign policy has all but vanished as an issue. In November, for example, most candidates made a statement or two on foreign policy. Sen. John McCain denounced Russia's war in Chechnya. Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared that he would be a pragmatist in dealing with the world. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley said that the United States was spread too thin and should rely more on the United Nations. Then, they all moved to satisfy the domestic concerns of their respective activists. And that was that. None has made a major foreign policy statement since.

All this goes to a much deeper problem, the very grammar of American politics following the reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thirty years later, these reforms - meant to do good - have instead given the presidential election process a weird logic that disconnects the campaign from the logic of American society in general. Americans themselves fail to fully understand it. It is particularly dangerous when the Chinese or the Russians fail to understand what the United States is doing.

The American founders created a system with two underlying principles. The first was that political life should not constitute the centerpiece of society. The founders rebelled not only against monarchy, but also against state oppression, and so created a sphere in which the state was not supposed to intrude. Within this sphere were private pursuits - from religious passions to making money and ultimately to rock and roll. None were the government's business. The system was designed to limit power and to slow the implementation of new ideas in government. Generally, the system has done well. Except during national emergencies, the selection of the president has not impacted the private lives of most people.

The second principle rested on the creation of an organic system of presidential selection. Political parties were organized at the local level. Local machines gave rise to state machines. State machines gave rise to national conventions - which, in turn, yielded nominees. True, there was very little democracy inside the parties. Democracy began after the conventions, when the nominees squared off. But every aspect of the political system, from the way in which the parties worked to the structure of the Electoral College, gave the United States a system in which the president emerged organically from the process. He was a true creature of the system.

But during the 1960s and 1970s, the system was attacked for its excesses - and the organic connection was broken. The system was overhauled in a revolutionary fashion, creating Political Action Committees (PACs), government matching funds and the increasingly expensive and chaotic two-year presidential campaign. The country is still reeling. Many of today's similarly reflexive calls for political reform derive from the fact that everyone knows something is wrong - but everyone assumes that the problem is too little reform. Instead, it was an excess of reform that shattered the connection between president and country.

To understand the effect of reform 30 years later, consider the Iowa caucus last week. In the name of participatory democracy, the caucus was held on a workday, driving down participation. The caucus essentially abolished the secret ballot - a mainstay of democracy - by forcing people to publicly declare their choices.

New Hampshire and the waves of primaries that will follow lend further aberrations. The first is the compression of time. Most primaries are clustered from February through March. This has made campaigning more expensive and demanding. At the end of last year, the candidates still in the race had spent $79.1 million, according to Federal Election Commission records, before a single ballot had been cast. In such a short time frame, candidates must appeal directly to voters, making the process frantic and increasingly dependent on broadcast time. The presidential campaigns used to be the peak of a pyramid of highly integrated state and local politics. Now, they float above it all, in the hands of fund-raisers, lawyers, marketing and public relations people.

Disinterested in thoughtful debate, these people try to generate images of candidates and play upon issues that have “legs” among voters. Where a political boss representing a special interest might once have forced a candidate to make a concrete commitment on an important local issue, campaigns today create collages of vague promises to increase brand - without increasing commitments. Voters in primaries are usually unrepresentative of the rest of the electorate. The only solution for a candidate is to intensify the search for promises without commitments, avoid positions or use weasel words so that only lawyers can figure out what was said. The result is what is unfolding now: the issueless campaign.

Indeed, candidates who believe in anything too strongly are destroyed early by the process or made laughing stocks by the media. In early 1999, former Vice President Dan Quayle staked much of his campaign on an attack on the Clinton foreign policy. A year ago, in a speech to conservatives, Quayle said that the United States under Clinton had “lost the will and our credibility to lead.” He added that no presidential candidate should be taken seriously “unless he or she understands the importance of foreign policy.” Quayle was the first of two Republicans to drop out of the race, after being largely ignored by the media and unable to match the $18 million that Bush has spent.

In the “reformed” process of picking a president today, the press plays an important role. During the post-Nixon 1970s, journalism underwent a transformation, just as politics did. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two reporters who were fed the story of Watergate by whoever Deep Throat was, became the heroes of the media and reformers alike. Journalists who dreamed of being portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, dreamed also of repeating Woodward and Bernstein's triumph. But Woodward and Bernstein had done something special. They had uncovered a crime.

Today, since many candidates won't oblige with a crime, lesser forms of wrongdoing will suffice. If a legal lapse is unavailable then an ethical lapse can be found. If an ethical lapse is unavailable, then perhaps a personal failing will do. This is why the media focuses on such urgent issues as whether McCain has a bad temper, Bush ever used coke or Al Gore is boring. If history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, the result has been a series of farcical elections in which the function of the media is to search, like Captain Ahab, for the whale of a scandal.

Now, consider the entire phenomenon from a foreign perspective. Foreigners try to make sense of U.S. foreign policy by making sense of American politics. After all, foreign policy is the one place where the president is actually powerful. And so this is where the strange rootlessness of the American president has its greatest - if least noticed - impact. The inability of much of the world to understand why the American president acts the way he does derives from the fact that the rest of the world - like most Americans - simply don't understand who the president is or where he truly is coming from.

Candidates can neither address fundamental issues nor speak authoritatively on behalf of the country. In the wake of last year's turmoil, China's government, for example, is most certainly looking for signals on the likely position of various candidates toward Taiwan. Depending on how Beijing perceives the candidates' positions, the Chinese may choose to act in a number of different ways. But a candidate's position on Taiwan has nothing whatsoever to do with Taiwan. It may have nothing to do with special interests in Taiwan. Instead, a position will be crafted on the fly to keep a candidate afloat in the chaos of the primaries.

The consequences can be significant. The Chinese may glom on to an errant, meaningless statement made to a reporter in the upcoming California primary, for instance, and completely miscalculate the intent. Since they have no one who speaks authoritatively on the subject in the campaign to speak to, they have no one with whom to verify perceptions. The possibility of misjudging is huge. One need only consider 1996, when the Chinese perceived that they needed to make massive campaign contributions to get any sense of what was going on in American politics.

Moscow, too, is busy re-formulating its post-Cold War policy, with one eye on the United States. But except for McCain's passing statement on Chechnya, no one has offered a true formulation of policy toward Russia. And the Russians have no party elders, no Harriman or Dillon for instance, with whom to speak and clearly understand a particular candidate's intentions.

Abroad, as at home, the increasingly peculiar way that the United States chooses a president has turned all the reforms on their heads. Instead of greater participation, there is less. Instead of stripping away the power of money, it is accentuated. And instead of lending greater clarity to America's intentions toward the rest of the world, there is only greater confusion. No one now watching the campaigns unfold knows the true direction of U.S. foreign policy, let alone what the United States might do in any given circumstance. The United States has become the black box, whose outcomes are entirely unpredictable.

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