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No Rest for the Elected

They and any serious rivals have to stay in campaign mode every year, every day. Money and the media keep them running full time.

April 04, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

From his third-floor law office in Beverly Hills, Raymond Boucher has one of the better vantage points on the nation's politics. Here is what he sees: a parade of candidates that seemingly snakes the length of Wilshire Boulevard.

And not just contestants in the 2006 elections. Boucher, vice president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, has already met with a dozen or so hopefuls who plan to run in 2008. And three or four aspiring office-seekers mapping out campaigns for 2010.

"You talk about a political 'season,' " said Boucher, who helps his group distribute millions of dollars in campaign funds to state and federal candidates. "Right now we're at the point where we're talking politics every single day, almost 24 hours a day."

The permanent campaign -- a never-ending cycle of fundraising, polling and candidate positioning -- has been a growing part of American politics for a generation, even before the term was popularized in a 1980 book of that title by journalist Sidney Blumenthal.

But those immersed in the election system -- candidates, fundraisers, campaign consultants, issue advocates -- say that in just the past few years the pace has grown even more relentless, to a point where the notion of a political "off-season" seems every bit as quaint as straw boaters and torchlight parades.

President Bush is currently embarked on a 60-day blitz to pitch an overhaul of Social Security, a campaign virtually indistinguishable from his election tour last fall.

He has used the same camera-friendly backdrops, the same buoyant crowds screened for potential dissenters, even some of the same lines.

The White House is hardly alone in treating November's election as just one more event on a 24/7 campaign calendar.

In California, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which has bitterly feuded with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over gambling issues, began airing TV spots attacking the governor a month after the November vote. "If you have the ability to define yourself with your own words, that's what you need to be doing," said Deron Marquez, tribal chairman.

More recently, unions representing California's teachers and nurses have joined the assault on Schwarzenegger, pummeling the governor with radio and TV spots that will probably continue if he seeks reelection.

Schwarzenegger has retaliated with radio and television spots assailing his detractors. At the same time, he is raising record sums of money as he threatens to call a special election for November if lawmakers fail to adopt his proposals to reshape Sacramento. It would be the sixth statewide vote in three years.

Once a date is set, "You're looking at the prospect of a ballot crowded not just with Arnold's proposals, but the Democrats' proposals and interest group proposals," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Indeed, roughly 80 prospective initiatives have been submitted to the attorney general for review in Sacramento, a record.

There are several reasons for the ceaseless campaigning, starting with the dukes-up mentality -- "hit or be hit," as one political operative put it -- that has become instinctive for strategists in both major parties.

The nation's near 50-50 partisan divide is another factor, working like the chicken and egg: Greater polarization among politicians leads to greater polarization among the public, which fuels further polarization among the politicians.

But the main reasons for today's blitz of all politics all the time are money and media.

The cost of campaigning continues to rise with each election, forcing candidates to raise ever greater sums.

In addition, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by increased competition between cable TV networks and the proliferation of political outlets on the Internet, means an insatiable appetite for political news -- or, at least, something new to talk about.

"As a consequence, there's a temptation, an incitement, for politicians to be active all the time," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic campaign strategist in Washington, who acknowledged that political professionals often egg on their clients. "Those of us in the business do what we do, and therefore we encourage our bosses to do it with us."

In California, the trend has been accelerated by term limits, which produce unceasing churn in Sacramento.

"People are already thinking about reelection as soon as they're elected, or moving to another position and wanting to be first out of the box," said Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. "It costs so much money and it's so hard to get name recognition statewide, you can't wait until the last minute to announce and get started."

To some, there is virtue in a system that keeps candidates in perpetual campaign mode -- more political discussion and a heightened awareness of the stakes involved. The 2004 presidential campaign, one of the longest and most heated in recent memory, produced a voter turnout of roughly 60%, the highest in 36 years.

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