Guest comment: Politics rather than policy

We are happy to bring a guest comment on the US Mid-Term elections. Today’s  guest commentator is David Pontoppidan, who studies sociology and is research assistant at CEPOS.

Politics rather than policy
By David Pontoppidan

There has been much debate on the result and outcome of the US midterm elections since the Democrats took back Congress last week. What effect will their sweeping victory have on the upcoming presidential election in 2008? And with Nancy ‘Perilous’ Pelosi as speaker of the House, what impact will the election result have on US policy? According to John Fortier, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who visited Denmark last week, the impact on US policy will be minimal, but the result on US politics overwhelming. This was his main point at the meeting held last Monday by the Danish free-market think tank CEPOS.

It’s important here to distinguish between the difference in meaning of policy and politics. Policy consists of setting forth actual bill proposals and engaging in bipartisan settlements. In other words what politics should be all about. Politics in reality, however, is all the rest: investigative committees with unfavourable witnesses, filibusters and philandering, accusations and double standards. According to John Fortier, this will be the primary effect of the Democratic victory. With the 2008 elections being so open, Nancy Pelosi’s promises of bipartisan cooperation will soon drown in the presidential campaign from both camps, regardless of what she may say or think. The result of which will be more politics, and less policy. Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton may be the first casualties of the midterm elections, but Pelosi could be the first in 2008.

I took the liberty during John Fortier’s lecture to mention some historical events that may prove this thesis wrong. E.g., after the midterm elections in 1986, during Reagan’s second presidential term, the democrats had majority in both House and Senate, and through various committees investigated the Iran-contra scandal, tried to push own issues through and worked against Reagan’s agenda. The result, two years later, was Walter Mondale running against George Bush Sr., an election the Democrats will be highly unlikely to try and repeat in ‘08. And after Nancy Pelosi having to promise on live television that the democrats won’t impeach President Bush, as if this was something fairly common, the danger of a “showdown” is definitely present. The question is if the Democrats will wait until 2008 before they draw arms.

“I would think that every Democrat has been reading up on how Newt Gingrich took back Congress in ’94 with his ‘Contract with America'”, says John Fortier. Pelosi has been compared to Gingrich, in spite of their difference in opinion but because of similar style. Yet opinion polls taken immediately before the midterm elections in ’94, show that only 16% of the American public had a negative view of Newt Gingrich. The following April, it was almost 40%! As former top aide to President Clinton, Paul Begala put it in the International Herald Tribune, Whitehouse spokesperson under Clinton put it, “We pushed it, but Newt did most of it to himself”. Nancy Pelosi may prove more perilous to herself than the Republican Party if she decides to continue down this path.

These are all good indicators that the Democrats should favour of a more bipartisan Congress the next two years, John Fortier agrees. But they won’t. Mainly because there is one major difference. In 1988 you had a former Vice President who was running for office. In 1994 you had President Clinton preparing for re-election, and the Republicans wanting to hold on to power. The presidential race in 2008 will be very different, because it’s so open. Dick Cheney isn’t running for office, and since the midterm elections were decided on the question of Iraq, it’s very unlikely that Condoleezza Rice will be running as well, as a colleague of John Fortier, Joshua Muravchik, recently put it. The Republicans have been looking for the Ken-doll of conservative politics, a good middle-of-the-road conservative, ever since this became apparent. One such Republican, former Senator George Allen from Virginia, who has previously been mentioned on this blog as a possible candidate, struck out in the midterm elections, and thereby lost his presidential chances according to Fortier. The same goes for the former senator of Montana. There is no obvious heir to the throne in the GOP, and the same can partly be said of the Democrats.

Whether this is a good thing or not remains open to debate. For those hoping for a Democratic revolution similar to the Republican revolution in ’94, prospects may be dim. For those hoping for actual policy-change, the same can be said. Instead, Fortier predicts, the debate will be heated, while the actual policy will be on hold until 2008, even though this may harm Democratic chances in ’08. As the Daily Telegraph reported the day after John Fortier’s meeting, George McGovern, the Democrat 1972 presidential anti-war candidate who lost a landslide victory to Richard Nixon, will be addressing more than 60 senate- and house-representatives next week on the issue of Iraq, not to mention John Myrtha, an outspoken anti-war senator whom Pelosi is backing as future Senate Majority Whip. A clear example that gives credence to Fortier’s theory of a heated political debate that won’t result in actual policy.

As William Kristol of the Weekly Standard put it, the election was won on dissatisfaction with the strategy for victory in Iraq, not for withdrawal. “Staying the course” is obviously no longer an option for President Bush. But while the debate in Congress may heat up and the filibusters increase, withdrawal is unrealistic.

The most important factor in American politics at the moment is the X-factor. Who will be the candidates in 2008? And can an incumbent senator really win the Presidential election for the first time since John F. Kennedy? First of all, the challenges for a senator-would-be-president, who suddenly has to balance a budget, rather than increase it, seem clear. Furthermore, a Clinton or a Bush has been on the presidential ticket for the last 25 years. Will the Americans continue this trend?

If both Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton are left out as obvious candidates, we may be witness to one of the most exciting and unpredictable presidential races in US history – but for now it’s politics, rather than policy.

5 thoughts on “Guest comment: Politics rather than policy

  1. David G.

    “Policy consists of setting forth actual bill proposals and engaging in bipartisan settlements.”This is misleading, as well as being bad English, and I can’t imagine Fortier said this. What the author means here is not policy, but the making of policy. Setting forth bills and engaging in settlements are parts of the techniques and methods of policymaking, which is something quite different from policy as such.Policy is the ideology and strategy that underly the “setting forth” of bills as well as a good deal else. Policy (as in “foreign policy”, “economic policy”, “welfare policy” and so forth) consists of a set of principles as well as a set of operating rules for putting them into practice. In divided government, such as we will have after January 20, the administration will seek to execute the policies it has decided by negotiating with Congress, where the Democratic majority will have policies of its own.Otherwise, Fortier seems about right. We will see at lot of noise. The worst we may see is the sort of thing Henry Miller fears ( that ignorant but power-happy legislators will sabotage beneficial innovations. Miller quotes Mark Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

  2. David Garby

    “Senator George Allen from Virginia … lost his presidential chances according to Fortier. The same goes for the former senator of Montana.The same goes for the former senator of Montana.”Hvem har overvejet at Conrad Burns skulle være USAs præsident?

  3. Søren Korsgaard

    So Rove’s prediction of decades of Republican hegemony seems to have come to a sudden death. For now, at least. Why? Iraq certainly is part of the answer, but (mis-)management of domestic politics is not to be neglected.At times I am nonplussed by the seeming support for Republicans and equal disdain for Democrats expressed on this blog. [This is not in particular directed at your posting which I liked, David]. Studying at a (to put it mildly!) liberal, pro-market institution (Wharton School of Business) in the US, it is not at all clear to me why any liberal-minded person would consider Pelosi a greater peril than her republicans predecessors. The current ideology of big government conservatism certainly is no ideal to aspire for, and I am afraid that some look back to the Reagan-era and mistake the Republican party of today with one of the past.In fact, it is rather difficult to identify any policy areas where the Republican party has promoted smart policies. Domestically they have curbed civil liberties and preached moral, but offered little reform. While foreign policy has sought to achieve idealistic aims, it has in most instances been counter-productive (personally I cannot help drawing a parallel to the late Friedman who so clearly demonstrated why government meddling, however well-intended, almost always ends up producing distortions).Some might argue that at least the economy has fared well. This is true if one looks only at GDP. Yet for all the growth in GDP median wages have not risen. No even the tax cuts did they get right: These were designed to bolster demand, and (unfortunately) not directed at the supply side of the economy.However, deficits have been soaring – and unknown to many are grossly understated! Smetters and Gokhale have demonstrated how a flawed, backward-looking accounting treatment misrepresents the US’ future obligations – in fact that very same accounting treatment would be deemed illegal if a private entity used it. Currently the deficit is reported to be in the area of $3.5 trillion while the actual deficit is closer to $45 trillion! (Rougly 300% of GDP)[The major source of this deficit is an ever-more expensive health care system, which neither Democrats nor Republicans seem capable to reform.]Unfortunately the Bush-administration has even failed in those areas where they are otherwise most sensible. We are yet to see tort reform; President Bush is running out of time to use his executive ‘fast-track’ in free trade negotiations; and legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley obviously has not improved the business climate. It is difficult being optimistic when looking forward on US politics. My critique of the Republican Party is no embracement of their opposites. Democratic policies also have flaws in plenty, in particular in the areas of business regulation, protectionism, and judicial reform. However, when it comes to political liberalism Democratic policies are generally more appealing – less paternalistic – than Republican.I am afraid that the next president, whether it be Clinton, McCain, Guiliani, Romney, or Obama, will have inherited a difficult position.P.S.: I am not always sure how which news from US politics disseminate back to Denmark, but some may find it of interest that a Newt Gingrich is starting a ‘movement’ to reform the US (and, some say, create a launching pad for his own presidential candidacy).


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.