Governance in the U.S. and UK

David Cameron, Conservative Party leader

One of the many dilemmas in politics is finding the balance between winning elections and providing good governance. In the United States, obsessive focus on the former has turned politics into continuous campaigns whether for office or for advancing or stopping the opposition. Health care is Exhibit A. The result is bad or an absence of governance.

Governance has always been difficult. Today’s problems, crises and challenges are probably more numerous than perhaps at any time in history. While existential threats such as thermonuclear war have thankfully receded, current challenges from the economy to checking al-Qaida or climate change have no obvious and perhaps no good solutions. And few out-of-power parties have been ready to govern on the first day of entering office. On-the-job training is needed. In today’s world, that may be too late.

David Cameron and his Conservative Party face this dilemma. Virtually all efforts go into winning the May election and not how to govern afterwards. Robert Redford’s 1972 movie “The Candidate” elegantly makes this point. Having won a huge upset presaging Scott Brown’s victory in last week’s Massachusetts’ Senate race for Ted Kennedy’s seat, candidate Redford mournfully asks, “What do we do now?”

Cameron should be worried by this “what now?” question because, like his American colleagues, the Tories have not seriously attacked the matter of good governance, how they will govern and what policies are needed to achieve those ends. The Obama experience of the last year offers a textbook case of failing to think through many of the consequences of campaign slogans or ideas that by default become policy.

In restarting the economy, the Obama team placed priority on stabilizing the financial system while jumpstarting engines for growth throughout the infrastructure. The fatal flaw in the latter was ignoring the reality that 90 percent or so of all new job creation comes from small businesses. Small businesses were not a top priority. Hence, unemployment grew to at least 10 percent and is still growing.

Regarding the financial system, as the George W. Bush administration failed to ask “what now” after Saddam Hussein fell, the Obama White House failed to understand that the real beneficiaries of the trillions poured into the rescue would be the surviving banks, not the public. Despite the collapse of giants such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, Wall Street’s announcement of record bonuses was predictable months ago. Worse, the terms made on the government’s part in making the loans were absurdly soft. Warren Buffett, for example, exacted far more favorable terms when he invested billions in Goldman Sachs.

Regarding foreign policy, Obama was too quick to approve the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in March, less than three months after he took office. That strategy was profoundly flawed in downplaying the need to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and neglecting Pakistan. When the decision was made to alter (sensibly) missile defenses for Europe, the announcement was sprung on the allies at the last minute. The problem was that the administration was still new in office; had not filled all the key appointments; and before the election clearly had neither the time nor the people to think through what they would do if or when they won the presidency. Of course, George W. Bush had the roughest road to traverse as the Supreme Court only finally decided the election six weeks before the inauguration.

The Tories have been out of power for a decade. But they have been in Parliament so they should be familiar with the issues, the crises and the choices. With May rapidly approaching, however, concentration has been on winning and not governing. What a Cameron administration will do vis a vis the economy, the huge and growing debt and deficit is far from clear. On social issues, while Cameron may claim Britain is broken, that is not a policy. And with a strategic defense review in the offing and public opinion turned against Afghanistan, what policies will the Tories choose?

To give themselves the best chance to address governing, on a crash basis, the Conservatives should convene the best minds in the country on selective issues irrespective of party affiliation for the purpose of providing the new government options for the myriad challenges and issues they will face and a sense of prioritizing them. Ideally, this process and the outcome could be made available to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the event Labor wins. With the proper organization, March and April should allow sufficient time for such a project to take hold.

Britain and America face daunting challenges. The greatest is the ability to govern wisely and effectively. Politics today forces attention on the electoral process as one cannot govern unless elected. It is time to shift that balance. Governance counts too!

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was syndicated as “Governing matters” by UPIAP Photo.

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