WASHINGTON — The presidential election is still a year away, yet nine or 10 Democratic candidates have been campaigning hard for a year already. That's a two-year campaign for a four-year term - far too long. Western European nations, all functioning democracies, do it in four or five weeks.
One reason for the excessive length in the US is the system of state primaries. Every state wants to have its primary early in the process, a spot on the electoral calendar that the powers that be in most states think gives them more influence on the outcome. As states jostle each other to be first, they set their primary dates earlier. The conventional wisdom is that a candidate must do well early in order to attract the money and support that will enable him or her to do well later.
This year, two things are different that offer hope for significant change.
First, there's only one Republican candidate - the incumbent, George W. Bush - so there's no need for primaries to narrow the field. Mr. Bush has set the Republican national convention, which will nominate him, for late August, thereby shortening the campaign proper to two months.
Second, three of the nine Democratic candidates have decided to skip Iowa (Jan. 20) and New Hampshire (Jan. 27) and concentrate on the second echelon of primary states (Feb. 3). If one of those three ends up with the nomination, it will reduce the early states' influence, which is now exaggerated, and reduce pressure on candidates to enter primaries there.
Some argue that long campaigns provide more opportunities for more people to meet candidates face to face, but this advantage is offset by at least three other factors: Voters are likely to get bored; campaigns need more money; and candidates, their staffs, and the media stagger to the finish line exhausted. The big winners are motel owners, restaurateurs, and car-rental agencies in the early states.
But the larger issue is that the country needs a better system for electing its president. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 spent considerable time on the question of how to do this, but they still didn't get it right. Another try was made after the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr resulted in a tie. This second effort gave us today's system.
There are several desiderata in electing a president that don't apply to electing a dogcatcher. Do we want to continue the indirect system embodied in the Electoral College? Do we want to modify it so that, for example, we count electoral votes by congressional districts instead of by states? Do we want a straight popular vote? Do we want to move toward a modified parliamentary system? And, especially, what role do we want to assign to political parties?
As things stand, the role of parties is preeminent; one is hard-pressed to see how we could hold a national election without them. Yet they're incompatible in a government with the separation of powers, something basic to the American system. James Madison warned against parties - calling them "factions" - in one of the Federalist Papers, and US history provides repeated examples of how well-developed parties interfere with independent branches of the government.
The most prominent of these examples involves relations between the White House and Congress. In a party system, members of Congress of the same party as the president are expected to support him, and members of Congress of the opposite party, to oppose him. Party support of the president reached probably its lowest point during the Vietnam War. At the same time, observers were bemoaning the decline of parties, because it resulted in the decline of discipline and leadership control in Congress. The election of 1994 brought Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, and Mr. Gingrich brought new organization and discipline to the House. We can have an efficient Congress or an independent one, but not both.
How to change the presidential electoral process requires mature consideration by all groups that participate in making public policy. This means extensive hearings in Congress and thorough debate in academia, the media, and other forums of public discussion. Out of that, maybe a policy worthy of public support will emerge.
We have started such a process before and abandoned it as too tough. Maybe that will happen to a new effort, but this seems like a good time to try.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.