Scott Reid is a political analyst and principal at Feschuk.Reid and served as director of communications to prime minister Paul Martin.
In October 1962, with the United States and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear conflict, Ted Sorensen was asked by President John F. Kennedy to write a letter.
It was to contain the White House’s reply to Premier Nikita Khrushchev, warning of severe military action if Soviet missiles were not removed immediately from Cuba. Mr. Sorensen, Kennedy’s political aide and trusted speechwriter, found himself at a loss for words for the first time in his life. He struggled with the implications of the hard line message he had been charged with composing.
Unsettled, he returned to the President’s generals to challenge their instruction, and Kennedy took heed. Mr. Sorensen’s instincts forced a rethink by both the hawks and the doves, paving the way for a historic diplomatic approach – and quite possibly averting an all-out nuclear war.
That’s pretty good staff work.
The crisis that confronts us today is of a different sort. Cold War tensions have been replaced by the hot fever of pandemic, but political advisers remain no less vital to successful government action than they were in the days of Mr. Sorensen and Mr. Kennedy.
This fact might be easily overlooked. In the estimation of many, political aides are the grubby filter between our elected leaders and apolitical public servants. What possible function, it might be wondered, could these glorified bag-carriers provide when the shady arts of politics are not required? Surely, at a time like this, we need good policy, not partisan advisers.
But then we’re reminded that Ted Sorensen was no military commander or diplomat. What he brought to the table was a nimble mind, a fine-tuned appreciation for public sentiment and the unqualified trust of the President. Those qualities enabled him to challenge the professionals, force the manufacture of additional options and, ultimately, help fashion a far superior outcome.
It is not so different for aides working today on our government’s response to COVID-19. Political staff may lack lifelong training in public health or emergency economic relief, but skilled aides will know how to read the public’s mood and can help their bosses build support for needed policies.
Like Mr. Sorensen, the best political aides are generalists with a talent for temporary specialization. Their versatility and range are assets needed by governments in a crisis such as this, when policies previously unimagined must be created from whole cloth and with record haste.
Take the federal economic response. Officials at the Department of Finance have an unmatched capacity to forecast effects on employment and economic growth. But they may also posses a natural, institutional bias to build programs that guard against abuse and preserve, rather than consume, fiscal capacity. It’s in their departmental DNA. This helps to explain why Canada’s initial policy response was so narrow and overcomplicated. Within a week, initial proposals were scrapped and substitutes were inserted. Even then, on-the-fly adjustments were further required to simplify and expedite help.
Here is an area where political aides can (and almost certainly did) force change for the better. The Department of Finance did not set out to provide an inadequate policy response. But the combination of an unprecedented challenge and long-learned habits produced a result that fell far short of what was required. The intervention of political advisers – attuned to where public needs are now and where they are likely headed soon – forces considerations that might not arise naturally from bureaucrats who are less exposed to direct popular feedback.
In usual times, the risk is that government initiatives might be sloppy or too permissive – bypassing those who need help the most and rewarding those who do not. This teaches policy-makers to be cautious and incremental, resisting political staff who might urge more expansive or hasty action. But in times of crisis, this dynamic is reversed. To help those in need, governments must respond creatively, quickly and with scale, even if that invites some sloppiness. Political staff are therefore needed to nudge policy-makers beyond their usual place of comfort and to produce more inventive options.
Plainly, these are far from usual times. Every indication is that we will remain in crisis mode for months to come. Consequently, the unique sensibilities of political advisers will be particularly needed – working productively in the cramped but critical space between professional public servants and elected leaders.
Of course, this demands that those aides be skilled – armed with the horsepower to intelligently question policy options and the judgment to resist political or partisan excess. Let’s trust that our leaders have picked their people well.
Because in times like ours, everyone values a JFK. But the world also needs its fair share of Ted Sorensens.
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