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.