Why Policy Matters in Politics

There are a shocking number of people involved in the political process who firmly believe that policy doesn’t matter. That, at best, it distracts from, and at worst it impedes, successful political campaigns. Obviously, readers of my blog (not to mention those who know me) know that I am a big believer in the power and importance of public policy specifically and ideas in general. So I’ve been feeling nicely bombarded with confirming evidence that substantive policy – as opposed to simply style or spin – really is at the heart of political success.

The first is short and simply: Frank Rich’s excellent, and brutally entitled, column “A President Forgotten but Not Gone” in the Saturday New Times, where he uses Bush as example of the limits both of propaganda, and of power without purpose.

The second is much more in depth. It comes from reading of Tom Kent’s “A Public Purpose.” In it, while talking about the remaking of the Liberal Party after the defeat of the St. Laurent Government in 1957, he notes:

The main lines of policy of the rebuilt Liberal party – conspicuously, the emphasis on employment, medicare, a national pension plan, but many others too – were adopted at the party convention of January 1958, and by as democratic a procedure within the convention as the processes of political parties ever produce…

The policies did not, in other words, originate from the remaking of the party. In essence, they were already written when the organizational rebuilding took place. To a large extent, indeed, the new people who did the organizing came forward because they were coming to a body of ideas, for the better government of Canada, that they felt to be at once progressive and practical.

This is the central fact about the remaking of the Liberal party from 1957-1963. The process was not to regroup, reorganize, and, some time later, determine policies. The main lines of policy came first. They were the presence behind all the detailed work of opposing, reorganizing, finding candidates, building support. all that came second, not first. (Emphasis mine)

Kent’s comments reaffirmed for me three reasons why policy matters in politics:

a) First, while we can debate the degree to which the public reacts to a policy platform, a sound policy platform is an important step to gaining the public confidence. Thus, I can agree with Kinsella that governments are generally turfed out, not elected, while maintaining that an electorates willingness to turn to an alternative is dramatically improved if said alternative has a coherent set of (well thought out) policies.

b) Second, a sound policy platform is necessary to making a party electable because it has always been ideas, not the remote promise of power, that has attracted the new blood and energy to the party. As Kent points out, in 1957 the new policy platform of the Liberal party preceded its reorganizations and rejuvenation because new innovative and progressive policies attracted a new generation of leaders, activists and organizers into the party. Without this new energy a party will wither and die, no matter how inept or incompetent is competitors.

c) Finally, and possibly most importantly, policy is critical to governing successfully. Kissinger, for all his faults, articulated this challenge succinctly:

High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.

In short, once elected you are too busy to build your intellectual capital and to formulate a plan. You must have a vision and platform in place beforehand, otherwise you’ll end up looking like Diefenbaker or Martin, operating without an obvious direction or purpose. Policy matters because without it, time in government will be unproductive, painful and short.

12 thoughts on “Why Policy Matters in Politics

  1. Peter Loewen

    I don't disagree generally that policy can make for successful campaigns, but aren't you being unnecessarily categorical? Surely there must be times when being vague makes quite good sense. I'd be more interested in understanding under what conditions a policy-driven campaign is more likely to be successful than one based on personality, dissatisfaction with an incumbent, or some other conjectural factor.

  2. david_a_eaves

    Peter, thank you for the comment. I completely agree and hope I didn't sounded categorical. I specifically made this point the weakest one in the post, highlighting it as “important” (as opposed to “necessary” or “critical” as I did for the later two). It is an interesting question about when vagueness is helpful and when it isn't. But I also believe these are short versus longer term trade offs. Vagueness in an election may prevent one or two interest groups from mobilizing against you (or supporting your opponent) but I don't think the public likes to be surprised. I think there is still a belief that you run for a mandate in Canada, and if you are overly vague, you probably don't have a mandate – and it will burn you when you try to govern. But you point was around the advantages in an election of being vague, and I don't disagree there can be some.

  3. Rikia

    To answer Peter, the times when “being vague makes quite good sense” are when you have no vision or policy, or when you're up against NeoConservatives with the war chest to twist your words and bring you down. (see “tax on EVERYTHING.”)Canadians are sick of both of these kinds of politics, which explains record low voter turnout. Most Canadians couldn't tell you what “Liberal” or “New Democrat” means, and the only answers I've gotten regarding “Conservative” are that they would have saved us from gay marriage, and that they spend less money, both false. Political parties don't stand for anything anymore, and few Canadians (less than 5%) bother joining them. Instead we join political action groups that represent our views, which sounds noble, but is actually a brain drain from the democratic process. It is also futile, as most things these groups want to accomplish (save the planet, save the things living there) can't be solved without political will.Dave, this post just won me over to the policy side, as a tangible expression of leadership and vision that are M.I.A. in our political system. Otherwise, we're just voting for the blue sweater.

  4. Peter Loewen

    There are times when it makes good sense, from a policy perspective, to conceal one's position. An example: Brian Mulroney concealed his true position (if he had one) on free trade and the GST when he was first running in 1984. Now, I think that these are good policies, but they would likely have died if Mulroney had revealed them during that campaign. I think Ignatieff in 2006 provides a good example of a time when being at the policy forefront was detrimental to his election chances. Rubenson and I have rather strong experimental evidence that expressing his positions hurt him politically. But, they were arguably smart positions from a policy perspective. Politics is sometimes about splitting differences, making compromises, and accepting gradual change rather than radical change. I think part of this is accepting that sometimes voters are rightfully interested in things other than policy. Rikia's claims regarding turnout and party membership are largely empty of empirical support.

  5. Tariq

    I hope I'm not too late in contributing to this discussion, but I was thinking about political tactics by some of our past Prime ministers. In particular, the contrast between Macdonald and Mackenzie King. More times than not, it was incredibly difficult to nail Macdonald down any side of an issue. But that was with regard to divisive issues. He still had a strong policy platform (National Policy, TransCanada Railway, etc). Mackenzie King on the other hand was the epitome of vagueness. He is known as Canada's longest serving Prime minister, but can we attribute anything exceptional to his career other than length of power? Either way, I think vagueness is wise when being challenged over a divisive issue (like say, abortion for example, which as a politician, should be avoided like the plague), but I agree with David: a strong policy platform is the way to go. The question is: is your policy platform in concert with public interest? Or is it based on ideology? The former, combined with knowing when to shut up – now there's a successful politician!

  6. david_a_eaves

    Peter, again, don't think we are in disagreement here. That said, you go after Rikia for not having empirical support, might be nice if you linked to your and Rubenson's work so we can check it out.

  7. candu

    It seems to me that the Liberals should generally stress their comittment for the welfare of Canadians. Contrast that with the cons support for the corporations' welfare. As a policy it is vague enough but not specific enough to be attacked on details. The whole political realm has been polluted by the rabid partisanship af the CRAP party. We cannot have open discussions on any issue since the cons propaganda machine is there to discredit any decent idea. For the past 3 years there is no governance but non-stop propaganda to disrupt the smooth flow of government. Harper has no interest in democracy he wants to rule alone. Parliament on the other hand is a debating society to come up with a consensus on bills to make the country better. Harper has no interest in improving the country's welfare only his own and his corporate backers. Our motto: order, peace and good government are foreign concepts to him; he wants to be President and blend us into the US. His goal is deep integration and his whole time in office has been used to advance that goal. Even now he is waiting for instructions from the US to harmonize our policies with theirs. It is beyond me, why the people accept our loss of independence to become a vassal of the US.

  8. Peter Loewen

    Sure, of course. You can find the paper Rubenson and I have here: http://web.me.com/peej.loewen/Site/Work_files/I…As for Rikia's claims, there is a lot of work demonstrating that declining turnout is not the result of parties becoming less ideological or less distinct from one another. Just one example is Noel and Therien's new book showing that any such story is just that. So, we can't attribute declining turnout to less differentiated parties. As for the claim that there is a general migration from party membership to activism, I am not sure that this is true. Indeed, I think two things should be noted. First, party membership has always been relatively low, and the creation of policy has most often been tasked to a small number of party members anyways. Second, those who join NGOs etc are more likely to be members of parties than those who do not. These are largely complementary activities. This is not to say that there is not a general decline in political interest or attention. There is, but it is not manifest in this migration to NGOs, pressure groups, etc. David, I guess out point of disagreement, if we have one, is that I take from your post the message that policy should be central to campaigns and that governing will be easier if it is. I just don't think that it is *generally* true.

  9. Rikia

    My views on political party membership and political action groups were extrapolated from two volumes of The Canadian Democratic Audit; “Political Parties” edited by William Cross, and “Advocacy Groups” edited by Lisa Young and Joanna Everitt. You can read about the process here: http://www.democraticaudit.anu.edu.au/papers/20…and purchase them here: http://www.ubcpress.com/books/pdf/cdaposter.pdfBut really, can't we have a blog discussion without footnotes?Regarding Ignatieff's place at “the policy forefront” being detrimental to his chances, if you're referring to his enthusiastic front-runner support of the Iraq war, or this later mea culpa which “makes lemonade” of one's mind http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rees/cormac…, then I would wholeheartedly have to agree with you that sometimes it can be wise to keep policy private.

  10. Tim

    David, where does the Kissinger quote come from? For folks interested in entering politics, but also wanting to continue learning, it doesn't make for an attractive picture about time in office.

  11. Tim

    David, where does the Kissinger quote come from? For folks interested in entering politics, but also wanting to continue learning, it doesn't make for an attractive picture about time in office.

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