Politics, policy and presidential campaigns

As the presidential primary campaign for 2008 takes shape, official Washington’s approach to policy development has entered a somewhat predictable phase. Presidential candidates have raised more money, traveled more aggressively and established top-flight campaign operations earlier than we’ve seen in modern times.

Political parties in several states are moving their primaries sooner and creating friction with national party leaders — to the point of risking delegate votes at their national conventions — all to help solidify their position as early-primary states.

Yet here in Washington, even with the accelerated timeline, one aspect of policy formulation during presidential campaigns is likely to stay the same: the traditional slowing of congressional action on major issues. With the exception of a looming debate over the Iraq war in 2008, there are a number of topics that won’t be resolved.

Take climate change, for example. This public policy matter has received increased attention among policymakers and throughout the news media and entertainment industry — particularly following the news of former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreProfessor with history of correctly predicting elections forecasts that Biden will defeat Trump Would Kamala Harris be disloyal if she were VP? Congressman John Lewis: A champion for civil rights and environmental justice MORE’s sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet why is almost no one predicting the passage of major climate change legislation this year?

There are a number of reasons that are instructive as to why Congress doesn’t generally move with haste on major public policy matters during the heat of presidential elections.

Democrats would much rather pass climate change legislation when a fellow Democrat is in the White House. Democrats wouldn’t want to compromise with an administration of the other party — by their calculation, potentially weakening the end-result language of climate change legislation — and potentially handing a moderating victory to a Republican president.

It is no surprise that elected officials of both parties look at the policy issues through a political prism — constantly considering how those issues affect their reelection efforts.

However, there is a counter-argument to this analysis. Congress has perhaps the lowest approval rating in history — and there is a case to be made that if Congress could show achievement, incumbents could be helped. But the way politics has been conducted the past several years in Washington has had a polarizing effect. This year, policy development has continued in that vein. Democrats appear willing to wait until one of their own is in the Oval Office, even though an argument can be made towards bipartisan accomplishment.

Famously, in August of 1996, President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA political hero is born in Ohio: America needs more Tyler Ferhmans Presidents, crises and revelations Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE, while running for reelection, signed into law the much-debated welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican Congress. Partisan goals for both the Democratic president and Republican Congress were aligned, providing both parties with a legislative accomplishment to highlight with voters. In that case, the electorate responded by making Clinton a two-term president, and keeping Republicans in the majority in Congress.

That said, the conventional approach to policymaking in presidential election years seems to be winning. And this time around, that slowing is taking place even earlier.

Another traditional aspect of policy-shaping during presidential campaigns that seems to mostly take a predictable route is the importance of lobbying presidential campaigns. People lobby the leading campaigns on any number of issues, including business interests, foreign policy, human rights and labor. Influencers want access to the presidential candidates and their policy staff before the candidate announces a policy position on an issue they care about.

Before announcing major public policies, candidates must weigh a number of factors, including public support, policy impact on national priorities, and the opinion of policy experts. In many cases campaigns have contact with lobbyists, who provide an experienced look at policy goals with an eye towards ideological consistency and electoral success. As candidates run in the Iowa caucuses and stake out positions, we have to remember that they have to live with those policy positions all the way into their presidency.

Lobbyists are concerned about getting in front of the candidates and their policy staff. And with good reason — you don’t want a future president to lock him- or herself in against your position during the campaign. It’s easier to lobby an undecided candidate than an incumbent president who has already taken a position against you.  

Vin Weber is CEO of the government relations and public affairs consulting firm Clark & Weinstock. He served in the House from 1981 to 1993, representing Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district. Weber is policy chairman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) 2008 presidential campaign.