Permanent campaign is a theory of political science conceived by Patrick Caddell, then a young pollster for U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who wrote a memo on December 10, 1976 entitled “Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy”.
“Essentially,” Caddell wrote, “it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”
The phrase “the permanent campaign,” its concept and history, were first defined by journalist and later Clinton presidential senior adviser Sidney Blumenthal in his 1980 book, “The Permanent Campaign.” In it, he explained how the changes in American politics from old-style patronage and party organization to that based on the modern technology of computer driven polling and media created a fundamentally new system. He explained that political consultants had replaced the party bosses and brought with them a new model by which campaigning became the forms of governing.
Blumenthal’s work resolved the problem in political science of “critical realignment.” According to Walter Dean Burnham, the leading political scientist of realignment theory, “If we view the arena of American electoral politics in historical perspective, we can say that the contemporary status quo extends back to some point in the mid-to-late 1960s. In his recent study, The Permanent Campaign, Sidney Blumenthal has advanced the argument that a critical realignment in fact occurred at about the point–1968–where many analysts had been expecting. They were, however, looking for realiagnment in the wrong place. For crucial to this one, and the ‘sixth electoral era’ which he argues followed from it, was the exact opposite of all previous events of this type. Instead of being channeled through–and thus revitalizing–the political parties, this realignment involved the conclusive marginal displacement of these parties by the permanent campaign…. The older linkages between rulers and ruled become ever hazier, ever more problematic.” (See Walter Dean Burnham, “The 1984 Election and the Future of American Politics,” in Ellis Sandoz and C.V. Crabb, Jr., ed., Election 84: Landslide without Mandate, New American Library, 1985, p. 206.)
Strategies of this nature have been in active development and use since Lyndon Johnson, where priority is given to short-term tactical gain over long-term vision. The frenzied, headline-grabbing atmosphere of presidential campaigns is carried over into the office itself, thus creating a permanent campaign that limits the ability of policies to deviate from the perceived will of the people (hence, intensive polling).
A famous example that illustrates just how strongly this mind-set has come to influence politics was during the Clinton Administration when pollster Dick Morris asked voters to help decide where Bill Clinton would go on vacation. In the words of columnist Joe Klein, “The pressure to ‘win’ the daily news cycle—to control the news—has overwhelmed the more reflective, statesmanlike aspects of the office.”
Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary for U.S. President George W. Bush, wrote in his 2008 memoir What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception that the Bush White House suffered from a “permanent campaign” mentality, and that policy decisions were inextricably interwoven with politics.