Tag Archives: nyt

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.

And the olympic winner is… the Soviet Union?

With the Olympics wrapping up many countries will be looking at the final ranking and assessing how well they did. Already the spin wars are brewing. A few American newspapers are trying to talk up a favourable story for the United States by emphasizing certain aspects of America’s medal tally: more gender parity in its medals, lots of team medals which only count for one even though lots of athletes get medals.

Others – including some other American newspapers and the official Olympics Medal Standings – recognize the dramatic rise of China and prioritize rank according to Gold Medals won.

But for all the talk of the rise of China and its challenge to the United States, one simple fact remains, much of this jostling for position is made possible because the USSR has been wiped off the map.

Indeed what is amazing – and has gone relatively ignored –  is how well the USSR would have done at the Beijing games were it still intact.

Admittedly it would still have trailed China in Gold Medals won – 44 (USSR) to 51 (China) – but it would still have bested the United States 36. However, it is over in total medals won where the USSR would have crushed everyone. Combined, the countries of the former Soviet Union won an astounding 175 medals in Beijing, leaving both America (110) and China (100) far in its (theoretical) wake. Indeed even using the New York Times scoring system (gold = 4 points, silver=2 points and bronze=1 point) the mighty USSR athletic machine would again crush the competition 353 points to China’s 274 and America’s 256.

What makes this feat all the more impressive is that their combined population has not grown (indeed it is in decline in most places), nor, I imagine, has funding for sports likely improved all the much. If anything, things are likely more difficult vis-a-vis funding – particularly in relation to the sums invested by the Americans and the Chinese. A sporting generation has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – indeed many of those competing probably can’t even remember those calamitous events 17(!) years ago. What keeps the USSR a formidable Olympic contender? Is it the social capital of trainers, coaches and professionals, is the the legacy of physical infrastructure or a political culture that rewarded athletic excellence? It would be interesting to know – somehow a centrally planned approach for creating Olympic success has survived its apparent balkanization and decent into decentralization exceedingly well.

The table below, and so much of the work for this post, was done by Richard Dice who tabulated all the data and kindly forwarded it to me. Thank you Richard.

Current Rankings
Gold Silver Bronze Total
USA 1 36 38 36 110
China 2 51 21 28 100
Soviet Republics Rankings
Gold Silver Bronze Total
Russia 3 24 21 28 73
Ukraine 9 7 5 16 28
Belarus 13 4 5 10 19
Kazakhstan 19 2 4 7 13
Azerbaijan 27 1 2 4 7
Lithuania 27 0 3 4 7
Georgia 31 3 0 3 6
Uzbekistan 31 1 2 3 6
Armenia 31 0 0 6 6
Latvia 51 1 1 1 3
Estonia 57 1 1 0 2
Kyrgyzstan 57 0 1 1 2
Tajikistan 57 0 1 1 2
Moldova 69 0 0 1 1
USSR 44 46 85 175
Hypothetical Ranking by Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
USSA 1 44 46 85 175
USA 2 36 38 36 110
China 3 51 21 28 100
Hypothetical Rankings by Golds
Country Golds Ranking
China 51 1
USSR 44 2
USA 36 3
Hypothetica NYT Rankings
Country Medal Points Ranking
USSR 353 1
China 274 2
USA 256 3

New York Times tears down its walled garden

Serendipity! Taylor and I just submitted a op-ed piece in reaction to Kathy English’s Toronto Star Editorial Journalism is Job 1 – As Always in which we question her vision of the Star’s role within an online enabled community.

One of the main thrusts of our piece is that it is not enough for newspapers to move their content online – they have to integrate with the online community they are a member of.

Not 24 hours has passed since we’ve submitted it (no word as of yet if the Star will run it) and the NYT has announced it is tearing down its firewall. No more exclusive, pay to view online content.

I’d make a comment but Andrew Sullivan has already done it justice (h/t to Taylor for passing along the link).

I do have one question though… what does the Globe and Mail know that the New York Times doesn’t?