American presidential election campaigns are absurd. Absurdly expensive. Absurdly long. Absurdly structured. And absurdly narrow in the range of ideas and options offered to a nation with an absurdly low level of voter participation. If ever there was a time to rethink how this country chooses its chief executive, this is it. And we don’t mean that in some rhetorical sense. We mean that this is the time, right now—two years before the first caucuses and primaries, thirty-three months before the November 2016 election names the forty-fifth president—to get serious about the process. That’s why The Nation is launching what we call “Project 45,” an initiative that refuses to accept the assumption that the 2016 campaign has to be dictated by insiders. We will identify and promote the reforms (and reformers) that offer the promise of a more open, inclusive and democratic process.
Why worry about 2016 now, when there are so many other pressing issues? Because the power brokers who profit from our system’s many imperfections are busy locking down the next election.
The Republican National Committee voted in January to compress and control the schedule of caucuses and primaries that will choose the party’s 2016 nominee; this is one part of a broad strategy to limit debate and undermine the ability of grassroots candidates to build momentum. The party also hopes to move its convention from late summer to as early as June. RNC chair Reince Priebus says he’s implementing “reforms to put Republican voters, not the liberal media, in the driver’s seat,” but that’s just the party line for public consumption. The GOP establishment’s real goal is to strengthen the hand of big money, and to make it easier for an acceptable candidate to prevail in the primaries, secure the nomination and maximize post-convention fundraising. And don’t think Democratic Party insiders won’t feel pressure to mirror that top-down strategy, especially if they sense that their nominating process might evolve into anything other than what former Montana governor—and potential candidate—Brian Schweitzer warns could be a “coronation” of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In its January 27 cover story, Time asked, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” The magazine’s conclusion was that “her unseen candidacy dominates the political galaxy.”
So it’s settled, right? Let’s hope not. First of all, Clinton has yet to toss her smartphone into the ring. Those who “know” that she will might want to check with former President Mario Cuomo. Besides, even the most ardent “Ready for Hillary” campaigners should recognize that her party, her country and even her candidacy are ill served if she has no real competition. If 2016 is the year Republican bosses will control and amplify their party’s message as never before, and Democrats prepare for a Clinton coronation, then fresh ideas will be marginalized. That increases the likelihood that the campaign will be a money-drenched exercise in broadcast and digital character assassination that discourages participation and frustrates change. Faced with this prospect, progressives must focus on 2016 now in order to expand the debate and make real the promise of democracy.
That’s why The Nation is making this commitment to encourage those who will fight to prevent the hijacking of the 2016 campaign by high-powered strategists, well-heeled donors and big media outlets that are more interested in cash, and a vapid politics of personality, than in a genuine clash of ideas. Our Project 45, featured in print and online over the next three years, will reject predictable approaches to the selection of the forty-fifth president—and predictable coverage of that selection. We’ll focus a great deal of attention on the money-in-politics issues raised by what former Senator Russ Feingold has correctly described as “this system of legalized bribery.” But we are not starting early simply to develop a better outline of the pathologies of American politics. Our purpose is to direct attention to the reforms and to the reformers who seek a cure. While some reforms (such as a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s toxic Citizens United ruling) will take time, others can be implemented before the mechanics of the 2016 campaign have been locked into place by Karl Rove and his Democratic equivalents.