The British pride ourselves on speedily choosing our governments. Excluding the phoney war that leads up to any general election, it currently takes us twenty five days to chew through the meat of the business, elect a parliament and send a Prime Minister to warm their toes on the Downing Street cat. Americans are lucky if they can elect a President in less than eighteen months.
Just deciding the party nominees takes all of a year, with the current election cycle expected to see a dozen Republican debates and six Democratic to complement the town hall meetings, rallies, campaign ads, TV interviews, guest slots on various comedy shows, as well as the hardback memoirs most candidates publish to spread their message. Only in the latter half of 2016 will Americans vote for their President with the winner expected to take office in January 2017. It’s hardly surprising that some Stateside feel ashamed that it takes that long. Satirist Bill Maher recently suggested that the only reason is that Americans are “dumb”. Only, I’m not so sure they are.
Watching last week’s Republican debate, I realised that the beauty of the American system is that it gives candidates enough rope to hang themselves; even the most bullnecked ego chance to taste the hard bite of hubris. There is nothing quite so potent in politics as the appeal of the new and a protracted campaign can protect us from our worst instinct of voting first and thinking last. Rather than being wide eyed and optimistic about candidates, voters are forced to delay their judgement until that ‘new politician smell’ has soured in the nose.
The notorious Howard Dean scream, credited with derailing his campaign in 2004, was not as unfair a reason to judge him as his supporters would have us believe. Nor was the notorious Neil Kinnock “We’re alright!” speech credited with robbing Labour of their expected victory in 1992. These are the kind of small misjudgements that campaigns are meant to highlight.
If America elected their President as speedily as the British pick their Prime Minister, Donald Trump would already be draping chintz in the Oval Office. He might do that still but it is hard to overstate the challenge he faces. A year is a long time but longest in politics where public opinion can change at the smallest quirk of character. And there are few quirks about Trump’s character that you would ever describe as small. None of Trump’s rivals pose as big a threat to his candidacy as Trump poses himself.
I still suspect that both Trump and Ben Carson will slip. Frontrunners usually do. Novelty fades and the American system is designed to provoke moments when a political career hits the death spiral. It is a safeguard to stop the spittle-lipped cranks from getting into the White House on a sudden wave of public approval. The long campaign weeds out those least suited to office. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani’s campaign floundered under allegations about finances and infidelity. Rick Perry’s run in 2012 failed over the racially derogatory name of a hunting camp that Perry’s family leased.
The British elections, by contrast, have become risk averse. Party operations insulate leaders and debates are rendered impotent. We might mock the American system for producing all manner of evangelical windpipes from the Christian right and no doubt some of the candidates are glassy-eyed and dangerous. Yet when did Britain last see a debate among party leaders that was combative and infused with passion? The only debates worthy of the name were for the recent Labour party leadership; a campaign ninety six days long, seventy one days more than the general election before it.
Some might argue that the result of that contest is the most powerful counter argument against long substantive campaigns. The winner, Jeremy Corbyn, is viewed by some as Labour’s most unelectable leader since Michael Foot. Yet what I think people really mean is that Corbyn doesn’t suit that style of short-game politics of which David Cameron is master. It is the podium-outside Downing Street grandstanding and being so averse to criticism that his only interviews are with the likes of This Morning. It is policies announced through Twitter, PMQs word-for-word the same as the week before, and electorates manipulated through fear and bribes.
America’s system doesn’t rush. Nor does it allow candidates to pander to the worst instincts of the public. For all its flaws, from Super PACS to attack ads, there remains a commitment to the ideals of democracy. They are ideals that we in Britain allow our politicians to ignore. An election without impassioned debate has no right to be called an election and, by that score, I’m not sure we’ve had a proper election in this country for a great many years.