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U.S.: Free And Fair? How To Keep Incumbents From Using Power Of Office To Win Elections(Part 2)

  • Andrew Tully

An incumbent elected official in the United States has a built-in advantage over challengers that may be unfair at times. But analysts say it is by no means illegal or even morally wrong to make the most of this benefit. There are many U.S. laws governing how incumbents may use their offices to help their re-election efforts. But as one history professor notes in this second of a two-part series on incumbency issues, exploiting the advantages of office goes back to the earliest days of the American republic.

Washington, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In 1996, Al Gore, then U.S. vice president, made telephone calls from his White House office to help raise money for President Bill Clinton's re-election bid. A year later, when those calls came to light, some accused Gore of violating U.S. laws that try to limit the advantage an incumbent has over a challenger during an election campaign. Gore was never charged, but the episode was "unseemly," in the words of one experienced political observer. It may even have cost him the presidency, which he lost by a very narrow margin to George W. Bush in 2000.

There are laws governing the behavior of incumbents in election campaigns. For example, the re-election committee of an incumbent U.S. president must pay for the use of Air Force One -- the presidential jetliner -- if it is used to take him to a campaign event.

But presidents often use the plane to take them to events that are part campaign, part official business, sparing at least some of the expense. And during an election year, even travel that is ostensibly official can take on the aura of a campaign appearance.

Sometimes incumbency can be a burden to a politician seeking re-election -- as in the case of Gore, who was accused of violating a law called the Hatch Act by using telephones at the White House to solicit contributions to his and Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.

The Hatch Act forbids employees of the federal government from working for the re-election of a sitting president and his administration. Violations are punishable by dismissal from employment -- for as little as 30 days, but sometimes permanently. The Hatch Act is meant to prevent an incumbent president from putting undue pressure on those employees who are not politically appointed.

Some argue that the Hatch Act applies even to the president and vice president, and that therefore Gore's actions were illegal. There was no formal effort to bring criminal charges against Gore, however, and the vice president said at the time he was advised by White House lawyers the calls were appropriate: "I do not feel like I did anything wrong, much less illegal. I am proud to have done everything I possibly could to help support the re-election of this president and to help move his agenda forward."

At the time, Gore was preparing to run for president in 2000. Although he was not, strictly speaking, an incumbent president that year, as vice president he had all the trappings of the second-highest office in the land, and could expect broad press coverage during his campaign.

But his opponent during the 2000 presidential election campaign -- George W. Bush, then the governor of the state of Texas -- made the most of Gore's earlier campaign tactics. For example, about six weeks before the election, Bush said: "This election's going to be won based upon ideas and philosophy, but it's also going to be won based upon who the people of this country will trust to hold the highest office of the land. And the vice president's a good family man, there's no question about that, but he has been part of an administration that's violated financing laws."

Bill Frenzel, a former member of the U.S. Congress, says Bush's tactic hit the mark. Frenzel -- now a scholar with the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy center -- tells RFE/RL that it is irrelevant that Gore may not have technically broken the law: "When Vice President Gore was caught in an act that the American people thought was unseemly, it didn't make much difference whether he was breaking the law or would have had to pay some criminal penalty for it because he already, on disclosure, began to pay what you would call a political penalty."

Gore lost the November election by a narrow margin. But Frenzel says it is impossible to say whether the revelations about his fund-raising practices were in any way to blame: "I don't think anybody would dare quantify what something like that would cost. But every political observer understands that when you get knocked off stride, it slows you down, you have to think about every kind of attack you make on the opposition in the context of 'Are they going to come back at me on this particular mistake that I made?'"

Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, says exploiting the advantages of incumbency goes back to the earliest days of the American republic. In fact, he tells RFE/RL, despite the elaborate and impressive trappings of the 21st century, modern presidents have less of an advantage over their challengers because both sides tend to be financially equal when a campaign begins. And it is money that largely drives American political campaigns, because of the advertising that it can buy on television and radio, and in newspapers and magazines.

But Ribuffo stresses that it is the news that appears in these media -- not the quantity of political advertisements -- that truly helps a candidate: "It doesn't all come down to money. There's the old saying that the president doesn't need anything more than good news -- not good [publicity], but good news -- and if the country's in a deep recession or in the midst of an unpopular war, all the campaign skill in the world isn't going to help."

Presidents are well-known for using this form of passive campaigning. In 1976, President Gerald Ford conducted what was known as his "Rose Garden campaign," named for the area of the White House grounds where, in good weather, presidents often make announcements to the news media.

Ford's Rose Garden campaign was meant to show Americans he was busy doing the nation's work and was above mere campaigning. It did not work well for him, however. As election day approached, public opinion polls convinced him that he should campaign more actively. He spent the last 11 days before the vote in a more traditional search for support, but was narrowly defeated by the challenger, Jimmy Carter.

Capitalizing on news -- or what can be loosely interpreted as news -- is not limited to incumbent presidents. Members of Congress, too, try to make the most of opportunities to associate their names publicly with good news. And if such news is not carried frequently enough in newspapers or on radio or television, representatives and senators take matters into their own hands with mass mailings.

Members of Congress are permitted to use "franked" -- or postage-free -- mail to communicate with their constituents. Proponents of franked mail say that without it, few Congress people could afford to answer the many letters they receive from constituents. Opponents say it is merely a free advertising vehicle.

Using franked mail for campaign purposes is forbidden by law, but members of Congress still use mail to deliver what they call "news" to their constituents -- news that sheds only a favorable light on the representative or senator. To prevent such sidestepping of the rules, the House of Representatives forbids all mass mailings using the frank within 90 days of an election. The Senate forbids them within 60 days of a vote.

News coverage is the ultimate advantage -- or disadvantage -- of incumbency in American politics, according to Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Sabato said in an interview with RFE/RL that an incumbent's standing rises or falls with whether the electorate believes -- rightly or wrongly -- that he is doing a good job.

"An incumbent is responsible for everything that has happened on his watch [during his term in office] -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. If an incumbent is running for re-election at a time of economic recession or depression, then that incumbent is going to bear that burden, even if the incumbent had nothing to do with the recession."

In other words, according to Sabato, incumbents' election bids are often far more susceptible to public opinion about current events than those of their opponents.