Idea or Infrastructure? Lessons about campaigns for change

Idea or Infrastructure? Lessons about campaigns for change

It was hard to know which way to turn the dial this weekend, if one follows national politics and government.

Saturday began with polls opening in South Carolina and church doors opening in our nation’s capital. A little later, in civic centers and schools, doors opened to caucus goers in Nevada. Large crowds entered through all these sets of doors, some to express their wishes for the future of our country, some to remember the contribution of one man to the trajectory on which we find ourselves.

Sunday, everyone digested the events in interviews, retrospectives and analyses.

Something else caught my eye just before the weekend began, however. It was a story by Jeffrey Solochek about the next round of state-mandated computerized testing in our public schools and the extent to which we are ready (this time). But there was a point made, deep down, that speaks to all large-scale campaigns.

Greg Cizek, professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina, suggested that one of the primary reasons Florida’s computerized testing regime has floundered is that the initiative was launched before the infrastructure was ready. The absence of and lack of familiarity with an adequate technological infrastructure was overlooked in the push to initiate computerized testing.

The idea (computerized testing) may be a good one (I know there’s a hot debate about how much testing we are doing, and how we use the results). But without adequate infrastructure, the idea becomes a pipe dream or, worse, a nightmare.

So infrastructure, not just an idea, matters.

But the collapse of former Governor Jeb Bush’s campaign for president suggests that too much focus on infrastructure, and too little on the idea, can have equally devastating effects.

Governor Bush made excellent use of the massive political infrastructure developed over three generations of Bushes engaged in public affairs. It may come as something of a shock to realize just how much of a dynasty the Bush family has been on the national stage. Just remember that the patriarch, George H.W. Bush, first ran for president 36 years ago, and that in the ensuing years, there has been a Bush on the national campaign trail or in national office for 22 of those 36 years. Even before 1980, George H.W. Bush was a prominent national political figure (as was his father before him). And he, his family, their friends and supporters worked hard to build the political infrastructure that has supported and sustained a number of political careers.

But infrastructure isn’t everything.

Anyone familiar with Jeb Bush knows that the former governor is a man of ideas. He can run circles around many a candidate, many an elected official, and not a few experts, on issues of particular concern to him. He can compete with the best on many more.

But I think it is fair to say that there was something fundamentally missing from the Jeb Bush campaign for president. It certainly wasn’t ideas; it was, instead, an idea.

The idea that was missing was the compelling reason for a Jeb Bush presidency.

Trump “tells it like it is.” Rubio represents a new generation of leaders. Cruz is a man you can trust (unlike all those other politicians).

Bush represents . . .

Right.

I’ll happily argue with the ideas associated with other leading candidates. I’m not claiming these are accurate accounts of the candidates, nor necessarily good reasons to elect them president. I’m just saying they each have offered us a reason.

Major campaigns, to be successful, require two things in order to persist and, ultimately, to succeed. They need an idea, a solid reason why we should join in, support the cause. They also need an infrastructure to support the effort, share that message, mobilize the people and get the job done.

Infrastructure without an idea is a skeleton or, worse, an oppressive bureaucracy. An idea without infrastructure is just a fantasy.

If we would change education, or politics, or the fate of the human race, we need both.

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