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What is the purpose of a campaign?

Is it possible for a candidate to run a campaign that both gets him/her elected AND provides a mandate from which to govern effectively? That is the question I will be tackling in the coming days.

Reframing the Purpose

What is the purpose of a political campaign? This isn’t a hard question to answer; quite clearly, the purpose of a campaign is to get a particular candidate elected to a particular office. If that candidate does not get elected to the office they seek, he or she does not get to serve. The idea of the political campaign is rather simple because in our system – when you run for office – you either win or lose.

The idea of the political campaign becomes more complicated when you dig deeper. How negative is too negative? What principles are you unwilling to compromise on, and are the costs of compromising on core principles? What type of tactics are you willing to resort to in order to win? These are just some of the questions each candidate should ask themselves before forming a campaign committee.

Some questions for you before proceeding: how would you answer the questions above? How would you like your elected officials to answer these questions?

I think that we can all agree that particular campaign rhetoric and tactics are damaging to our democratic process. Negative ads that resort to name-calling and the spread of rumors and half-truths are just a few examples. Campaign rallies where elected officials use demagoguery as a means to anger a group of people, or pit one person against another, are more examples of damaging campaign tactics. Policy proposals that are specifically designed to divide the electorate are more subtle, but equally as damaging. These campaign tactics are a reality in our system, and I’ve heard both friends and colleagues rail against them. As a former and current political operative, I can say that these tactics are employed because they are effective. When you are running a campaign that holds victory as its central focus, you will do whatever it takes to win.

My proposal is that we, as an electorate, hold our elected officials accountable by forcing them to run principled campaigns that focus on victory as a means to govern, rather than victory at the expense of governance. What I mean is that our current political system often rewards those who demagogue, divide, and conquer. As I discussed in a previous post, this puts the elected official in an electoral box. In essence, by pandering to the extremes of their party, they find compromise – once elected – an impossible task due to fear of being un-elected in the next campaign cycle.

Furthermore, candidates for public office should adopt a strategy where they run to govern. I believe that when candidates think about the dynamics of governance during the campaign, the paradigm shifts and many tactics that were once attractive become ineffective. While I was not present during John McCain’s first run for President, back in 200, I believe there is evidence that his campaign was run with governance in mind. The “Straight Talk Express” became the image that embodied his bid for President. He promised the American people that he would tell it to them straight, whether they wanted to hear it or not. That initial run thrust him into the national spotlight and gave him the platform to be the Republican Party’s nominee in 2008. While McCain’s strategy changed in the 2008 campaign, I think it is fair to say that his “Maverick” streak is what the American People found so attractive about him during and after the 2000 campaign. Therefore, I argue, that the American People actually crave this type of leadership.

The American People would rather see a candidate who can be trusted to stay true to themselves rather than someone who agrees with them on all the issues. Politics is a blood sport, and nobody is going to agree with you all the time. As a candidate it’s easy to resort back to the idea that “I can’t change anything unless I get elected,” but I would retort that some folks who get elected aren’t able to change anything because of the way they get elected. By focusing on the campaign as a means to effective governance, I believe that candidates will be forced to think about the consequences of their campaign’s actions on the electoral climate of the country.

Over the next weeks I will focus attention on drilling down into the campaign structure to highlight some ways that campaigns can be changed to incentivize more effective governance and a healthier democratic process.

Until next time… stay classy democracy

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