Friday, October 24, 2008

When Politics Displace Policy

This weekend, the talking heads will be talking about Robert Draper's long article in the NY Times magazine. It's fascinating indeed, almost a post-mortem on McCain's dead-man-walking campaign. In a nutshell, Draper walks through the various phases of the campaign (six by his count), recounting how McCain was constantly re-cast as the hero of some new narrative.

(It's probable that one can read too much into this--the casting about that has characterizes the campaign is probably usual in every losing campaign. When you're getting beat, you try new things.)

One thing it does highlight is a phenomenon that characterizes the entire GOP. Politics have two phases and two sets of staff--the politics of the election and the policies of the governing. In a very real sense, these two phases work at odds with each other. The activities required to get elected are exactly the activities that make it hard to govern. The act of governance requires the artful use of compromise and a degree of collegiality that gets spoiled in the visciousness of a campaign. Governing requires nurting voters toward the correct solutions, even if they are dead set against them. Campaigns are not time for difficult truths; they are a sales pitch, and you tell people what they want to hear. Good governance has to at least exist in detente with hardball campaigning--if you don't have the grit to do what it takes to get elected, you never have the chance to govern.

I've been perpetually amazed that apparently smart "experts" have failed to recognize this dynamic in the election. Recent example: pundits seem genuinely mystified that neither candidate will admit that the financial crisis is about to horribly screw most Americans. Really, you don't get why they won't make that admission? In failing to recognize this dynamic, I think they've failed to see its inverse--what a toxic problem it is when the policies are wholly taken over by the political arm of a campaign so that they become elective markers, disconnected from actual governance.

Here's part of the problem:
Though commonly described in the press as a Karl Rove protégé, [McCain strategist Steve] Schmidt was a Republican operative for a dozen years before he ever worked for Rove. When Bush returned to the White House, Schmidt was not among those from the 2004 re-election effort who were rewarded with plum jobs, despite his well-regarded work overseeing the campaign’s rapid-response unit.
Campaign hacks shouldn't be rewarded with plum jobs. They don't stop thinking like hacks when they get into the government--they continue to think in terms of attacking, in turning policy positions into political building blocks. This leads, obviously, to things like the Brownie catastrophe, where incompetents head important agencies. But it leads even more to a highly politicized environment that's anathema to governing. Of all the things that have come to characterize the Bush administration, this is the defining element. Almost all the major policy failures of the Bushies can be traced back to hackish thinking.

The GOP is about to have a massive, collective nervous breakdown. For over a decade--since 1994, really--they've believed their elective success comes from the perfect twining of policy and politics. It's like a Greek tragedy: they now believe their own spin. Recent example: they perfected the art of the bullshit attacks in their culture war jihad, but now they actually seem to think that there's a "real America." Palin seemed shocked to have to walk that one back. And speaking of Palin, her selection will go down as the case in point for this phenomenon. It seems never to have ocurred to the campaign to consider whether she could govern. That's why they didn't vet her and still seem to find it unfair that the press is critical. Draper touches on this, too:
The following night, after McCain’s speech brought the convention to a close, one of the campaign’s senior advisers stayed up late at the Hilton bar savoring the triumphant narrative arc. I asked him a rather basic question: “Leaving aside her actual experience, do you know how informed Governor Palin is about the issues of the day?”

The senior adviser thought for a moment. Then he looked up from his beer. “No,” he said quietly. “I don’t know.”
The modern GOP has 11 days to live. What emerges after that will almost axiomatically be an improvement: when you hit bottom, there's only one way to go.

1 comment:

iggir said...

good post.

the GOP is scrabbling around in the mud right now, but having Obama in the White House will probably rally them. we'll have to endure four to eight years of bashing by the likes of Limbaugh, Weiner, and Fox News...but, after Bush, it will be worth it.