November 23, 2007

Electability

Reflecting on my earlier post on Ron Paul, made me move to consider something else. Based on this rather interesting article on Powerline concerning how Republican voters should vote in a possible primary made me consider what it is that we actually request from our politicians. For example Paul Mirengoff on Powerline suggests that there are two Conservative candidates running for the Republican nomination (Thompson and Romney) and two Electable candidates (McCain and Giuliani), irrespective of whether you agree with the precise division of the candidates, his point boils down to how a Republican conservative primary voter should choose in such a case. The point could be transposed to the Democratic party too- and furthermore is universal to any political system. Conservatives in the UK in 2005 struggled with whether to vote for the electable David Cameron or the more ideologically hardline Liam Fox and David Davis, the question has bedevilled Labour party politics as well.

Some politicians seem to set a course which leads them to become perfect governors. Bill Richardson on the Democratic side would be a good example of someone whose career has been perfect for attaining high office- a cabinet member, foreign policy experience, a successful executive career and nothing to frighten the voters- Mitt Romney has also spent most of his career proving his competence in a variety of contexts. One thinks of previous Presidents of the United States- Richard Nixon for example or Dwight Eisenhower who brought formidable CVs to their roles. But others don't. The leading example in the UK would be the Labour MP for Birkenhead Frank Field. Field has only once served as a minister, he was number 2 at social security for a year just after Blair came in- but he has always been one of the more incisive and intelligent thinkers about social policy and in some ways has had more effect on UK policy than some of the ministers in that department have had. Field is respected and highly thought of and his contributions are intelligent enough to make ministers stop and think. Field's brand of politician seems to be a diminishing species, but in recent Parliaments investigative thinkers like Tam Dallyel or ideological animals like John Redwood also come to mind as people whose ministerial careers were limited by their influence.

Looking at Ron Paul in the US, what is interesting to me about it is that he looks like this second type of politician. Its probably a reason why he is so popular and it is the reason why inevitably he will fail to get either the nomination or the Presidency. He seems to me to be the kind of candidate who makes other people think. He has ploughed a lonely furrow in Congress- whether you agree or disagree with him. He has also argued with considerable skill for positions which I suspect very few people hold- if so he has perhaps forced people to evaluate why they beleive in the conventional wisdom, even if they still hold to it afterwards. That function is crucial to any political process- and just like Field, Redwood and Dallyel, he is a neccessary part of the political system. It also explains though why I think he could never become party leader- because ultimately following those arguments rigourously to their ends means abandoning the neccessary blindness that goes along with comforting a vast coalition and becoming electable. Paul's virtue is his uncompromising stand for libertarianism as an ideal and that is his ultimate vice as a candidate as well.

Turning back to the Powerline column for a second, it is interesting to think about what this implies for politics. I think what is going on here is a tension between the ideal of what political engagement is and the reality of what a political party is. Everyone involved in politics wants to do what they think is right for their country. That's why people get into politics and don't use their often impressive talents in other ways. But in order to do that people have to form coalitions, and the reality of politics is that none of us precisely agree with anyone else. Consequently most politicians and most people involved in politics look up to the principled evangelists but also look down on them- using words like irresponsible and luxury to describe the way that they express their ardently held opinions. To be consistant is seen as an indulgence because it doesn't reflect the fact that politics is about coalition building as well as being about describing the best way forwards. That tension I reckon will always be with us, so long as we don't slip into dictatorship and the dilemma that Powerline evokes is therefore one that will endure long after Messrs McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson have become obscure footnotes in history.

5 comments:

Vino S said...

Yes, it is an interesting question - what makes politicians electable? And, sadly, i do think that being the kind of politician who makes people think is not helpful. This is because, if you come up with new and controversial ideas (even if many think they are good), some will think they are bad. As such, this can then be used against you by your opponents and so you probably won't get elected.

The other point you make is important as well. Politics is about coalition-building. As such, an aloof thinker may not be able to do this as well as someone else could.

Lord James-River said...

Looking at Ron Paul in the US, what is interesting to me about it is that he looks like this second type of politician. Its probably a reason why he is so popular and it is the reason why inevitably he will fail to get either the nomination or the Presidency. He seems to me to be the kind of candidate who makes other people think. He has ploughed a lonely furrow in Congress- whether you agree or disagree with him. He has also argued with considerable skill for positions which I suspect very few people hold- if so he has perhaps forced people to evaluate why they beleive in the conventional wisdom, even if they still hold to it afterwards.

This is a balanced summation.

tyger said...

It's an excellent post, gracci.

Slightly off-topic...

Although I want Obama to win next year (unlikely, very unlikely), I - at the risk of sounding fantastically patronising - would be quite comfortable with another Republican administration, so long as it doesn't mean Giuliani in the White House.

Huckabee, even if he comes across as being the most evangelical, certainly seems to be driven by a Christian will to improve the world - rather than a crusade to attack other religions and further US interests abroad.

Likewise, Romney is talking a lot of crap, but ultimately I think he'll be a consensus president who'll work with a Democrat legislature.

McCain, after a dodgy start is piking up steam, especially after dropping any panderings to the religious right.

Giuliani, however, gives me, night-terrors.

Paulie said...

*very* good post Gracchi.

That line: "He seems to me to be the kind of candidate who makes other people think."

It's the highest calling for a politician - higher than actual office, I would say?

Paulie said...

Oh, and ...

"...most politicians and most people involved in politics look up to the principled evangelists but also look down on them- using words like irresponsible and luxury to describe the way that they express their ardently held opinions.

To be consistant is seen as an indulgence because it doesn't reflect the fact that politics is about coalition building as well as being about describing the best way forwards."

If you have an unusual position that would need selling, it's fine - as long as it is based upon a defensible diagnosis. The difference between Frank Field and Tony Benn, for example, is that Benn's diagnosis of society's problems appear to be designed primarily with the purpose of posturing in mind.