Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Where Harper Falls On the Venn Diagram Of Politics

Last week, the federal government announced the results of a competition for $33 billion in shipbuilding contracts and everyone was satisfied that the outcome was fair and reasonable. (Well, not everyone. Nycole Turmel grumbled. But the interim leader of the NDP has already made herself irrelevant so let's move along.) Everyone was satisfied. And for good reason.

The winning bids were chosen by a panel of rigorously monitored civil servants without any input from politicians. Amazingly, there was no political calculation and chicanery involved: The winning bidders were the best bidders.

Which is not to say politics had nothing to do with it. Quite the contrary. With shipyards from Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec competing for two huge contracts, it was inevitable that a region would be bitterly disappointed and the only way for Stephen Harper to ensure he wouldn't suffer political damage was to make it clear he had nothing to do with the decision. The process was apolitical; the creation of the process was very political.

Which is not a criticism. In fact, this is a textbook example of sound decision-making in a democratically elected government.

The central dilemma facing any elected politician is this: What is good is often not popular and what is popular is often not good.

Most politicians want to do good. But in order to do anything, good or otherwise, they must first hold power, and the only way to do that is to promise and deliver what is popular. Thus, politicians are pulled between doing what is good and what is popular.

Imagine a Venn diagram with two partially overlapping circles. One is labelled "good pol-itics." The other "good policy." That's the whole game.

It's also a handy way of judging politicians.

The Bad Politician is one who is only concerned with the "good politics" circle. Fortunately, they are less common than cynics think. H.L. Mencken had the Bad Politician in mind when he observed that "the saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful."

The Average Politician finds the area that clearly lies in both circles and stays there. He may make occasional road trips into good politics/bad policy but he avoids good-policy/bad politics like an alcoholic avoids dry counties. This is a crowded category.

The Good Politician finds previously unidentified areas where policy and politics overlap and occasionally risks his popularity by supporting good policies that are bad politics.

Every politician claims to make this grade - "It may not be popular to promise sunshine and lollipops but, by golly, it's the right thing to do!" - and yet only a minority ever do.

The Great Politician expands the "good politics" circle so that more good policy - as he sees it - becomes good politics. In a phrase, the Great Politician leads.

Judgments about a politician's grade are better made in biographies but, among postwar leaders, the ranks of Great Politicians clearly include Konrad Adenauer, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Among Canadian prime ministers, I'd include Pierre Trudeau (if only for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and Brian Mulroney (for free trade).

And then there's Stephen Harper. I've been hard on him in the past, and justifiably so, I think. But let's be generous and set most of that aside. Pol-itics is politics, after all. Stained clothes are inevitable when one climbs the greasy pole.

Instead, let's judge Stephen Harper by this scale. How does the prime minister measure up?

He's done lots that is politically popular but is clearly - on his own terms - bad policy. The GST cut. The micro tax credits. Foreign investment interference. The centralization of decision-making. But still, he's not a Bad Politician.

Ruthless as he has been in putting politics before policy, Harper has always been intensely interested in good policy - again, as he sees it - and he pursues it when it coincides with good politics. The process for allocating the shipbuilding contracts was a perfect example. The decision to scrap the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly is another.

But that's as far as he goes. Forced to choose between good policy and good politics, he goes with the latter every time. His support for supply management is the most flagrant example. It contradicts his position on the Wheat Board and it is clearly contrary to what he actually thinks about that "government-sponsored price-fixing cartel," as he once called it.

But he sticks with it because, in Quebec and Ontario, supply management is sacred to a highly committed constituency and any change would cost political points.

That's what Average Politicians do. And Stephen Harper is an Average Politician.

To be clear, an Average Politician isn't the same as an average politician. Bill Clinton was an extraordinary politician despite being a very Average Politician.

Nor is that grade locked in. The deeds that elevate politicians often come in the latter stages of their political careers, as their thoughts turn from survival to legacy.

Whether Stephen Harper will become more than a successful Average Politician remains to be seen.