The thing is, no one can reasonably claim that the 2020 Democratic candidates or Trump started the campaign season we’re living through (and will always be living through). Only one of the 2020 Democrats ran in 2016, Bernie Sanders, and he announced after Hillary Clinton, likely without thinking he had a chance in hell. Trump wasn’t the first Republican to announce his candidacy for 2016—that’d be Ted Cruz, who told the world he would be president in March 2015. That was before Trump called his wife ugly and said his dad murdered JFK.
It doesn’t make sense to blame Cruz, either, though, because everyone knows the 2016 election actually began long before anyone announced a run to replace President Obama. The race to replace him began as soon as Obama won reelection, in 2012. And the 2012 campaign (which, by this logic, we’re still living through) began in 2010: Two years into Obama’s presidency, on the eve of the midterm elections, then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a New Jersey newspaper, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
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Can we blame McConnell, then? Not really. He was just stating the consensus view of his party. The real culprit is whoever created the mind-set that the opposition party’s main job is to defeat the governing party in the next election, by denying its ability to govern, by campaigning instead of governing. The historian Kevin Kruse told me that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is perhaps most responsible for “a scorched-earth style of politics that destroyed the traditional bipartisan clubbiness and put members on a constant war footing.” War footing, I take it, means campaign footing as opposed to governance footing.
Blame Newt, then? Maybe. It depends on one’s view of history. Taking a more structural outlook, the endless campaign began around 1968, when, as The New York Times put it, “Democrats changed their nomination rules after their tumultuous 1968 convention, encouraging more states to hold primaries.” The primary system forced candidates to woo voters up close and personal. Whatever the candidates and voters may have felt about that, the states liked it. And because the states understood that early voters have more power than later voters to pick the eventual nominee, they jockeyed to hold their primaries as early as possible in an election year. (Remember the concept of an election “year”?) Many states experienced what pundits call “New Hampshire envy,” since New Hampshire has the first-in-the-nation primary by law. Of course, no one suffers from “New Hampshire envy” anymore. Everyone’s too busy in Iowa, which is now the king of presidential primaries—excuse me, caucuses.
Anyone serious about becoming president—so that they can campaign as an incumbent, without having actually governed—must eat fried things at the Iowa State Fair, which takes place in mid-August of the year before the election, or about three years after the election, depending on one’s point of view, not that anything ends or begins anymore. Of course the really serious candidates attend not only the fair but also high-school theater productions and garage sales and whatever, which ultimately led Senator Kamala Harris to joke, “I’m fucking moving to Iowa.” (Harris, one of the first really serious 2020 candidates, is no longer running for president.)