The way politics and policy-making intersect can define the legacy of an administration and change the course of history for better or worse. We’ve seen this time and time again, and it’s worth bearing in mind now more than ever as the United States prepares for a pivotal general election.

In times like these, policy can appear to fall by the wayside amidst the noise of the larger political theater while politics remains is a vocal competition on all fronts. Policy-making, a display of subtlety and compromise, captures less public attention in spite of its significance.

All politicians must be adept at both politics and policy-making; true greatness lies at an intelligent intersection between the two.

Politics and Policy: A History

What makes a good politician and a good policy-maker, and do the two skills overlap? As important as a president’s popularity is for politics, public speaking aptitude and charisma don’t necessarily translate to an ability to pass legislation in office.

History shows us that even an unpopular politician can be a great policy-maker. Harry Truman — at the time, an exceedingly unpopular president — was able to pass the Marshall Plan in spite of a Republican-controlled Congress. Barack Obama, on the other hand, failed to pass climate change legislation as a new and popular president with a Democratic majority in both houses. But why?

For politics and policy to align in an effective way, a politician has to be an adept manager. This means he or she must understand the constellation of forces at work, including those forces in opposition. Both Democrats and Republicans often express nostalgia for Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy, which afforded him the ability to roll out bipartisan measures on social security reform, tax reform, and even energy efficiency. In contrast, many of Obama’s policies have floundered, in part because his approach ignored the opposition.  

As we’ve witnessed this year, candidates are quick to make big promises that cater to what their voter bases want, feasibility aside. This is great for politics, but may not pan out on the policy-making end. What will matter most is whether the person in office is able to sweat the details, choose battles wisely, and compromise when it makes sense.

How Politics Influence Policy (and Vice Versa)

Many groups with different causes and ideologies collaborate in the process of policy-making, from think tanks, to lobbyists, politicians and special interest groups. Politics, on the other hand, is inherently divided. It’s this division that keeps policy from reaching the extremes.

Politics is also pivotal in its relationship with public opinion. Politicians from Churchill to Lincoln have upheld different notions on the role of public opinion in policy making, the latter claiming that in America it’s simply “everything.” Though the average citizen has little sway on their own, the opinion of the masses undoubtedly shapes politics and thereby, policy.

Policy influencing politics looks a little different. For example, the ACA, once passed, became a cornerstone talking point for Republican politicians on the campaign trail, as did the Iran Deal. American opposition to these policies lent power to the political forces positioned against them. This relationship makes clear the constant and necessary feedback between politics and policy-making.

A good politician is tuned into this feedback, and able to succeed at both arts: the roaring show of politics and the subdued process of policy-making. Those that can inspire crowds and have policy-making and management aptitude are the most capable of transformative change.

It’s not a duality that every candidate possesses, but it’s something we should all actively seek out in the democratic process.

Looking forward

As election politics carry on each day by TV, radio and web, the policy aspect of the race remains theoretical. Citizens forget that politics and policy are important on all levels, at all times, and not just during a presidential election.

Elections alone don’t signify change, but they do set the stage for it. Only then can policy happen, but only if the person elected creates solutions that take complex factors into account, ultimately leading to a healthier, happier economy and populace — no small feat.

For those discomfited by politics in its brashness, hope can be restored in the policy-making beneath it all. It may not be as entertaining, but it influences our lives in matters large and small. With smart people in office fighting for the policies we need, politics looks less like a power play and more like another cog in the wheel that keeps America running.

And that, my friends, is why the showdown that comes this November is more than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — it’s the policies they bring to the table and what they mean for the country’s future, both in the minutia and the long-term.