Palin's Brilliant 2012 Play

Sarah Palin’s resignation shows she understands what governors like Bobby Jindal don’t, says The Daily Beast’s Joe Mathews—our politics have changed, and you have to quit to win the next race.

07.07.09 11:38 PM ET

LOS ANGELES—The worst thing about Sarah Palin’s decision to resign the governorship of Alaska is the conclusion she appears to have reached about the political calendar: Even three years before the 2012 elections, the job of potential presidential candidate doesn’t leave any time for governing, even a lightly populated state.

As strange as her announcement sounded, Palin’s view of the electoral world is clear-eyed. These days, politics trumps governing all the time.

This reality is why Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has already announced he would not run for re-election next year; he’s too busy working as a presidential contender. And it’s why Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in the middle of a serious budget crisis, left the state for a campaign swing through Iowa and New Hampshire, where votes won’t be counted until January 2012.

The Age of Hyper Politics is a glorious one for campaigning and for those who follow the horse race, but there is precious little room left for governing.

Woe to those who don’t fully understand that the 2012 presidential campaign is already in full swing. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s Argentine-flavored implosion drew intense scrutiny not merely because of the narcotic of sex-related news or the mystery of his whereabouts but also because Sanford was running for president.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama’s January address got terrible reviews in part because he was being evaluated not as the nation’s youngest governor but as a presidential candidate. By comparison, the Republicans who look strongest are those who are already running free and clear—2008 campaign veterans and very former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

The notion of the permanent campaign is a generation old. But with the addition of Internet fundraising and the constant communication of Twitter and Facebook, we’ve entered a new era: the Age of Hyper Politics. This age is a glorious one for campaigning and for those who follow the horse race, but there is precious little room left for governing.

The winners in hyper politics are pollsters and pundits and consultants and just about anyone without a real job. The losers are everyone else. Constant campaigning isn’t good for anybody—not the candidates who are drawn away from their families and distracted from their day jobs, not the constituents they are abandoning, and certainly not a country that needs sustained, thoughtful governance in a time of crisis.

America’s elected officials desperately need a holiday from politics, especially after the end of the too-long 2008 presidential campaign. Instead, the 2012 campaign is already under way. The mindless logic of this too-early contest—all campaigning all the time, even when no one should be paying attention—seems to be spreading to state races. One reason why South Carolina’s leaders have struggled to respond to Sanford’s troubles is that they are consumed by next year’s gubernatorial race, a fierce contest that is already being fought.

But the madness of hyper politics is most apparent in California. One might think that a state that faces so many immediate troubles—economic collapse, record foreclosures, a huge budget deficit, a cash shortage that has forced the government to pay some of its bills with IOUs—would have no time for other political topics. But you’d think wrong.

Although California won’t pick a new governor until November 2010, the race has been well under way for more than a year. On the Democratic side, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is running full-time, blasting supporters nearly daily with policy statements and fundraising appeals. Attorney General Jerry Brown hasn’t formally announced his candidacy, but he’s been behaving like a candidate since he assumed his current office in early 2007. In fact, Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983 (a period during which he ran twice for president and once for the U.S. Senate), was an early innovator in hyper politics.

But it is the three leading contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination who have set new records for early starts. The campaign of Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who took office only in January 2007, is issuing nearly daily blasts at former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a relative latecomer to the race. (She started only this February, though that came after what she says was more than a year of reading up on the state, meeting people, and planning.)

Poizner has been particularly critical of Whitman’s unwillingness to debate him or detail her views on some policy issues. Since she has until the June 2010 primary to do both, Whitman’s reluctance would appear perfectly sensible. But the attacks continue.

The two Republicans also are engaged in an endorsement battle that verges on the bizarre. Poizner, who must never be accused of procrastination, began announcing endorsements of his 2010 gubernatorial candidacy last fall. But in the last few weeks, Whitman has begun announcing her own high-profile endorsements, including some from former Poizner backers.

Yes, you heard that right—California Republican politicians have issued endorsements, rescinded endorsements, and issued new endorsements, all a year before anyone votes. One of these serial endorsers, Rep. John Campbell, had declared his support for Poizner last December with a statement that said: “Steve is the right man at the right time for California.” By the time Campbell switched to Whitman last month, a year before the primary, Steve’s “right time” had apparently passed.

The third GOP candidate, former Rep. Tom Campbell (no relation to John), has distinguished himself by releasing the sort of detailed budget and policy plans that one sees from politicians only after they have entered office. In fact, his proposal to address the current fiscal crisis is arguably more detailed—and courageous—than that offered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Campbell’s commitment to detail is admirable, but it’s not all that useful for voters, since he can’t become governor until January 2011.

By then, Campbell’s current policies may feel stale, a serious peril of endless campaigns. President Obama’s candidacy, when viewed with through the prism of his presidency, is Exhibit A of this problem. The country’s economy and budget looked very different in early 2009 than when he began laying out his program in early 2007. As a candidate, he had no well-developed policy on bank bailouts, fiscal stimulus, or trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Voters had little idea what he would do on these most important issues.

Is there anything that can be done to shorten campaigns? Given the competitive pressures of running for office, candidates are unlikely to dial back without outside pressure. Campaign-finance regulations, which need revamping anyway, might be re-examined with an eye not only to limiting the influence of money but also to limiting the length of campaigns.

Instead of tying public financing of elections to limits on campaign spending, why not tie them to a requirement that campaigns not form committees until some appropriate time period before the election date? Or why not raise contribution limits for campaigns that start late, making it easier for latecomers to raise money and thus penalizing those who start too early?

Some will say such restrictions infringe on expression or are anti-competitive. Nonsense. Politics must have its season, but politics is not for all seasons. A campaign should be a means to an end—good governance—and not an end in itself.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for the Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.