Governing is Campaigning

Mark Halperin, a political writer for Time, got a great deal of flack for a recent column in the New York Times. The column, entitled “How ‘What It Takes’ Took Me Off Course,” consists primarily of Halperin sharing the revelation that there is a difference between the campaigning for president and being president. As he says:

For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.

But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.

He then cites both Clinton and Bush as examples of good campaigners who were, at times, terrible at the “being president” thing.

Understandably, many people, myself included, felt the urge to do little more than scream “Duh!” and allow Halperin to take on all our dismay with the way politics is covered in America. Many went so far as to make the erroneous claim that only Halperin could have ever made this error. That is something my experience says is completely untrue.

With the benefit of waiting a few days, I managed to realize that Halperin’s point is both more interesting and accurate than even he seems to have realized.

If Halperin’s essential point is “campaigning isn’t governing,” I think the crucial truth that he missed is that media coverage–and perhaps reality–tends to make it look like “governing is campaigning.” Any member of America’s House of Representative is no doubt aware that their presence there is perpetuated by them taking almost every off-day and weekend to go home or elsewhere to campaign and raise money. This problem is slightly less troublesome in the Senate, where the six year terms frees most members from the constant act of worrying about their political future.

But heads of the executive branch are perhaps seen more as campaigners than anyone else. Early in his term as president, George W. Bush pushed a number of centrist policies–the education reforms of No Child Left Behind are probably the most prominent–in the hope, expressed most cogently by Karl Rove, of building a permanent Republican majority. And though the internal discord of the party–especially on immigration–seems to make that hope less and less likely, there’s no denying that the effort was a conscious campaign.

Even with no possibility of reelection, and a party that’s doing it’s best to forget that he exists, George Bush is still campaigning. Most visually, yesterday’s Annapolis summit–which featured little more than a symbolic meeting between Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas–is widely read as a bid for a more positive legacy for W. and for his Secretary of State Condelleza Rice. This is also to say nothing of the president’s newfound penchant for fiscal discipline. Or his constant refrain that though he may have the worst approval rating in recent memory, it’s higher than that of the Democratic Congress.

So if we venture back to Halperin’s assertion that “campaigning isn’t governing,” I can’t avoid feeling that the correct response is “duh.” But, I would make clear that the two are commonly conflated, both by the media and by those in powers. If yesterday’s events at Annapolis prove nothing else, it gives some heavier credence to the inverse of Halperin’s thesis.

Surely the inverse of your thesis being true doesn’t provide sufficient reason to justify your own weak thesis. But the constant conflation of campaigning and governing is not Halperin’s fault, it’s not media’s fault, and it’s not exactly the politician’s fault. It may, however, be a reflection of the sometimes pitiful nature of American democracy.

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