Gone Fishing

It's only January 2003, but by this point, Democrats can safely guess that their next presidential nominee will come from the pool of candidates who have already announced interest in seeking the White House: Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton. And if you think it's a little early for the field to be complete, you're not alone. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who sought the party's nomination in 1988 and is currently contemplating another bid, said on Hardball recently, "Maybe by the time I think I can do my duty and run, it may be too late."

What's happened is that the presidential nominating process has gotten so front-loaded that, in a little more than 12 months, we're likely to know who the party's nominee is. The tentative date for the Iowa caucus is Jan. 19, 2004, with New Hampshire's primary on Jan. 27 and the South Carolina and Missouri primaries on Feb. 3. Think back to 2000 and you'll remember that both Al Gore and George W. Bush had wiped out their respective opponents by early spring. It's a far cry from the 1992 campaign, which Bill Clinton entered in late 1991 and when many other Democrats were cowed into thinking that a second term for the first President Bush was a sure thing. "Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s you could go slowly in Iowa and New Hampshire and build momentum from there, [now] you've got to know how far along you can go before you even start," said L. Sandy Meisel, a professor of government at Colby College and the author of Parties and Elections in America. With states jockeying for the media attention and economic benefits an early primary brings, primaries and caucuses in 2008 could come just days after New Year's.

A current candidate entering the race as late as Clinton did in 1991 would have no chance; his or her competitors would already have picked up the most talented fundraisers, strategists and pollsters, not to mention support from politicians and the party faithful around the country. (Kerry's campaign just tapped Gore communications guru Chris Lehane, for example, and Edwards has hired some former Clinton and Gore advisers.) As Meisel points out, part of the fault lies with the media, which start covering one campaign right after the previous one ends. The result is that the democratic system that primaries were supposed to help along has largely failed. The power to choose nominees is now back in the hands of powerful party leaders, who decide which candidates to fund and therefore which candidates are viable.

But another effect is that candidates who are supposed to be representing us at other levels of government -- say, in Congress -- are spending so much time on the campaign trail that they're neglecting their current jobs. Both Kerry and Lieberman missed the Senate's vote confirming former Gov. Tom Ridge (R-Pa.) as head of the new Department of Homeland Security; Kerry was in Florida campaigning while Lieberman was in New Hampshire. Lieberman's decision was especially strange when you consider that he's the ranking member on the committee that will oversee the new department. Yesterday's Boston Globe reported that Kerry has missed 15 out of 28 votes this year, Lieberman has missed 11 and Edwards has missed five. And in the House, Gephardt has missed two out of 12.

What's more, lawmakers are supposed to be taking the pulse of their constituents at home on weekends, but most are elsewhere in the country. Here's a peek at what 2004 candidates did during the weekend after the 108th Congress started: Edwards spent Jan. 10-12 at fundraisers in California and Oregon, Gephardt spent Jan. 10 in South Carolina, Kerry spent Jan. 10 and 11 in New Hampshire and Jan. 13-15 in California, and Lieberman announced his campaign on Jan. 13 and spent part of the next two days in New York. With schedules like these, the candidates will probably be better versed about what voters elsewhere think about issues than about what the voters at home think.

Of course, Capitol Hill has always been a place for ambitious people. When John F. Kennedy entered the Senate in 1952, it was with an eye toward running for president; four years later, he unsuccessfully sought the party's vice-presidential nomination, and eight years later, he was elected to the White House. Kennedy was more successful than most senators in seeking to get to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But all of this early campaigning means that lawmakers are spending little time doing the jobs they've been elected to do. The "permanent campaign" has become the campaign not only to win re-election but to win a better office. Edwards has been running for the Oval Office basically since he got to Washington. (He was nearly chosen as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, with only two years on the job.) Kerry essentially ignored his re-election campaign this year to prepare for his 2004 White House bid. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who heads the Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee, has spent much of the past two years securing her base among female voters and raising money for female candidates. She also recently won a slot on the Armed Services Committee, a good way to bolster her foreign-policy credentials. All of which is likely preparation for a 2008 run at the White House.

The need to pay attention to their current jobs has kept some lawmakers, like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), from running. "One must be focused 100 percent on that single goal," he declared of running for the presidency earlier this month. "After careful reflection, I've concluded that at this moment in our history, with so many important decisions to be made about our nation's future, my passion lies here in the Senate serving the people of South Dakota and fighting for working families all across America." Daschle's decision was based on his recognition that he couldn't be his party's Senate leader and a White House candidate at the same time, something then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) realized in 1996, when he stepped down as majority leader. It's also part of the reason why Gephardt resigned as minority leader last fall.

Biden, who wouldn't make the top-tier list of Democrats in 2004, also deserves kudos for not rushing into declaring his candidacy. "There's people who tell me that the timetable I'm on to make a decision will mean I probably couldn't get the nomination, but I got to do first things first," he said on Hardball. "We're about to go into a war possibly. I'm a ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. The moment that I would announce for president, my ability to influence events in this administration would end."

The fact that candidates must declare their intention to run for office a full 20 months before voters go to the polls -- and 18 months before many voters start paying attention to the election -- is ridiculous. It dissuades qualified people who want to fulfill at least some of their promises to serve the people of their districts or states. The people who do choose to run end up serving their own ambitions rather than their constituents. And that's not in anybody's interest.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.