Politics and Public Policy

By Matthias Jaime

“I think the mistakes made in 2008 will have a big effect, as they should in 2012. The 2008 process was evaluated almost entirely through a political prism.” – GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, quoted by the Washington Post

The role of politics is something I constantly struggle with in our program for public policy. The quote above and the recent airing of Game Change, HBO’s interpretation of the 2008 Presidential election, highlights the danger of focusing too much on politics over substance. Selecting Sarah Palin as the Vice Presidential candidate was clearly a shrewd political move that in many ways backfired. But today, I think it’s right to say that Sarah Palin’s biggest legacy is the emphasis now put on the legitimacy of our politicians. It’s not just a question if they legitimately represent their base but are the candidates legitimately qualified to be in a position of power. Frequently I hear discussion on Rick Santorum’s or Newt Gingrich’s legitimate ability to be President and it’s probably Mitt Romney’s strongest argument too. From what I can tell, this sort of focus seems to have contributed to the prolonged primary battle for the Republicans and will probably become more articulated in future races.

Hopefully this focus on legitimacy will translate into a greater awareness of the role pure politics is playing in selling a candidate and his/her platform. Playing politics certainly has an important role in a democracy but I fear it may have become too absorbing. This fear is nothing new of course. Going all the way back to Plato’s Gorgias, he warned of this very danger where a person’s ability to talk or sway voters obscures the expertise and substance of more capable leaders. This sort of sophistry is without a doubt still a danger today. Yet on the other side of the spectrum is a technocratic control of government and society that history shows us is equally dangerous. Politics has the important role of channeling focus towards the voters, towards those most affected by policy and should not be dismissed entirely. Finding a balance then, between the two extremes, is a challenge and is hopefully what we are learning in our public policy program.

In today’s political world, it seems to me politics has a more dominant role than ever. I mean, it’s hard to place the level of politicking in a historical framework but that’s not really the question. More to the point is the question of whether politics today is taking such a dominant role as to obscure real experts and sound policies that help society. For my part, it’s hard not to bash Republicans whose stated goal this election is simply to un-elect Obama and nothing more. Or Rick Santorum’s constant focus on social issues while we are in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression! However, conservatives can just as easily point to President Obama and the charisma of his voice. Undoubtedly, Democrats play political games just as fluidly. The question remains then, can our society still value merit and substance over politics and what is being done to insure that it can?


Matthias Jaime is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.