Are they governing or campaigning?

In Congress and in the majority of states, Medicaid is very much under the legislative microscope. And it’s been politicized…the foul lines of the debate are defined by political party as elected officials look ahead to the 2012 elections. As you follow this debate, I urge you to consider the differences between governing and campaigning.

When politicians govern in our American system, they must find common ground and compromise with their colleagues in order to secure enough votes to pass legislation. (In rare cases, they can gain enough seats in the legislature to have an ideological majority…as the Democrats did last year when they enacted health care reform. Even then, of course, there were many compromises to achieve the necessary votes.)

But when they campaign in America, politicians can’t seek common ground—they must emphasize the differences between themselves and their opponents.

In a society with unlimited news outlets (think of the Internet) and an insatiable 24/7 news cycle (every news provider needs content every hour), politicians campaign constantly! Even before they officially announce their campaigns, they are positioning themselves as candidates. Need examples? Do you think Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney are campaigning for President? They haven’t officially announced their candidacy….

What’s my point? We are witnessing one of the fundamental failures of our American form of democracy: it’s hard…some might say impossible…to govern and campaign at the same time. Between now and November 2012, most of the news stories that masquerade as “governing” will really be “campaigning.” I think it will help you understand the news about Medicaid, health care reform, etc. if you keep in mind this distinction between governing and campaigning.