May 2, 2013
Martin O'Malley repeals death penalty
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. (Photo by Chris Usher/CBS News via Getty Images)

Today, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law a repeal of the death penalty in Maryland. Last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) engaged in a live filibuster for hours to draw attention to drone and assassination policies that have been largely ignored and unexamined for years. For months, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

What do they all have in common? They’re all more or less serious policy efforts, and they are all part of the early fighting for the presidency in 2016.

And that’s a useful lesson. One of the reactions I’ve received to recent things I’ve written about the “post-policy” Republican Party is the question of why, really, parties should ever try to create policy; isn’t it in their interests, some ask, to just sit back and criticize? It’s certainly safer; something always goes wrong, and so a party can always find something criticize, but policy formation means shifting that risk to oneself. Why do that?

Well, sometimes parties must, because their aligned interest groups demand it. But politicians who seek to run for higher office, and especially the presidency, are generally obliged to have accomplishments to run on. It’s not strictly necessary, but enough people believe that it’s necessary that ambitious politicians usually attempt to produce some accomplishments if they are thinking of running.

And that’s good! Instead of sitting around thinking up the cleverest talking points (or, more likely, overpaying people to write those talking points), governors and senators try to formulate successful public policy. Everyone wins! Okay, fine: not everyone will agree with O’Malley on the death penalty, and who knows whether anything comes of the immigration bill or Paul’s crusade. But the point is that they’re making an effort.

This is, by the way, why Democrats should be encouraging a challenge to Hillary Clinton. Everyone wins when elected officials create good public policy, but partisans in particular win when candidates must compete for their support.

It’s all in Federalist 51: The oddball United States Madisonian Constitutional system is designed to create democracy through taking advantage of the self-interest of voters and the ambition of politicians. Sure, sitting and reasoning together is fine, and so is public opinion, but that’s not the core of the system. It’s all about finding ways to give politicians incentives to make government work better, and to solve real problems in people’s lives.

So sometimes it works — and we should appreciate it. And next time you get frustrated that the presidential campaign is a four year never-ending marathon, try to remember: It’s also one of the biggest incentives out there for politicians to innovate and create things that work.