Elaine Kamarck on Public Policy and Politics

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on April 30, 2012

Major public policy changes often begin in the orderly world of analysis – but end up in the messy world of partisan politics. Elaine Kamarck, lecturer in public policy, explores the overlap between policy and politics. Her latest research focuses on the specific dynamics of policy success and failure in the public realm. Her book "How Change Happens: Politics and Policy in America" will be coming out in 2013.
Q: Why do some big public policy reforms succeed while others fail or languish for decades?
Kamarck:The research I’m currently doing is prompted by the fact that there is no easy answer to that question. In fact I start with the Presidency of Harry Truman and passage of the Marshall Plan. One of the things that intrigues me about the passage of the Marshall Plan is that Harry Truman was in terrible political trouble when he managed to pass this groundbreaking piece of legislation. If somebody had said to you, “could a President with this kind of approval ratings, this kind of hostile Congress, this kind of animosity from the press – could he in fact pass a piece of legislation like this?” You’d say “not a chance.”
So one of the things that I am interested in is the “policy landscape” if you will, and why sometimes things succeed when you don’t think they’re going to and sometimes things fail when it looks like everything should be set up for them to succeed.
Q. What characterizes a successful policy initiative?
Kamarck:It has to do with the characteristics of what I call the policy battlefield or the policy landscape. I like to take it from the perspective of the policy entrepreneur, someone who is seeking to do something in the world of government and social policy. One of the things I have my students do is think about all of the players in the system and who really matters for the kind of issue they are interested in and I have them think about the scope of the conflict. And in talking about the scope of the conflict I’m going back to a political scientist from mid-century, a man named E. E. Schatt- Schneider who wrote a wonderful book about the scope of the conflict which still holds up. One of the things that policy makers and policy entrepreneurs have to figure out is, what is the level at which we can win? Do we win by keeping this issue small, in Congress, at the committee level, or do we win by going to the public and involving them in a great, big massive campaign? That is a really tough question and it is of unending interest to me: how experienced people – including Presidents of the United States – actually get this wrong. When they judge the scope of the conflict wrong, they don’t succeed in changing policy.
Q. Please give us an example of what you think of as a successful major policy change and why change was able to happen.
Kamarck:There are a lot of successes out there. One that is often referred to is the Goldwater-Nichols act which was passed in 1986 and which restructured the American military in ways that people had been talking about for four decades. We had four decades of high level opinions, studies, lists and lists of prestigious commissions, all recommending the same thing in terms of the way we organize our military. And it didn’t pass until 1986! If we look at that story, there are two things that really matter. One is that there was finally a record of failure or perceived failure on the part of the military that got to the point that even people who had been against change said “maybe we’ve got to look at this.”
And second was a very unique relationship between Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Barry Goldwater. The uniqueness of that relationship and their determination to keep this issue above and beyond partisanship really made the difference and allowed a reform to happen that had eluded people like Dwight D. Eisenhower and others for the previous four decades.
Q: How about an example of a good major policy proposal that failed, and why.
Kamarck: Look at the attempted immigration reform in 2007. You had an incumbent President, George W. Bush, a Republican. You had a new Democratic House of Representatives and Senate, the House headed by Nancy Pelosi. All of the leadership wanted immigration reform – the Republican President, the Democratic Congress, etc. But they fundamentally misjudged the intensity of the opposition within the Republican Party and the lack of intensity and support within the Democratic Party.
And so this is an interesting situation in which, if you didn't know the names, if you didn't know the issues, you would think that something that a Republican president and a newly elected Democratic Congress wanted would have a pretty good chance of passage. It didn't pass. It didn't even get close.
Q. What about our current political climate? Can any real major policy changes take place? How bad is the climate now compared to other periods in American politics?
Kamarck:We are going through a period of extreme polarization. It is bad, but there have been worse periods. All you have to do is think about the period between 1852 and 1860 where we couldn't resolve some pretty big issues and we actually went to war over it. So that's kind of the ultimate in polarization when you end up having a Civil War.
We had another period of intense polarization around the turn of the [19th] century, and a lot of similarities -- an economy moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy with a lot of upheaval, a lot of unhappiness, a lot of people who are used to making a living one way finding that they couldn't do that anymore. So we have seen these periods before. It doesn't mean they're good or they're necessarily helpful, but we have survived. That is the first step.
I think the second thing to say about it is one of these things that's peculiar about the period we're in is that you had in 2006 and 2008 what looked to many people like a Democratic sweep. We had a Congress elected, a President elected, and it looked like there was going to be a Democratic trend, particularly because of the entrance into the population of a generation of young voters who went, as we know, overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, but also for the Democrats in 2006.
In 2010 however, that was abruptly reversed. So the political system is now in a bit of a dilemma. If you're a Democrat, you say to yourself "2010 was an aberration. There's no point in compromising on poverty programs, on Medicare, on Social Security, no point in compromising now because we just got to wait until the next election and we'll be fine." If you're a Republican you're saying to yourself "look, we had this great big win in 2010. We stopped this momentum. No point in compromising right now. Let's wait until 2012."
So we have a political system that for the last two years has been just kind of holding its breath – each side thinking that there's not really much point in giving up too much because they think that they are going to be vindicated in 2012. So 2012 is shaping up to be a really critical election.
Q: You used the term “policy entrepreneur” earlier. How do you define a “policy entrepreneur?”
Kamarck: A policy entrepreneur can be an elected official. It can be a president. It can be a senator. But it can also be a professor at the Kennedy School or it can be somebody who is the head of an interest group. It could even be a lobbyist.
So a policy entrepreneur is somebody who has an idea that they want to push through the political process, and successful policy entrepreneurs usually have a set of skills that involves being able to see the policy battlefield, so to speak, understand it, and understand the players in that.
In the case of the passage of Goldwater-Nicholas Act of 1986, Barry Goldwater was very much the policy entrepreneur – directly conceiving of it, directing it, understanding the players, and making the correct judgments.
And we've had other successful cases. Francis Perkins, in the Roosevelt Administration, was obviously the policy entrepreneur behind passage of the Social Security Act.
Oftentimes when you look at a major change of legislation or action, there is a policy entrepreneur, who either conceived of the idea or took the idea and ran with it. They overcame all the odds, very much like a business entrepreneur does. They take an idea, they run with it; they keep pushing and pushing it against all the obstacles to change.
Obviously blockingchange is a lot easier than makingchange and that is why I think the policy entrepreneurs are particularly interesting people to teach here at the Kennedy School, and to study.

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page