Policy does matter, however, and the rhetoric that politicians use to get elected ends up shaping the policy, often more than the politicians might have hoped.
Firstly, the rhetoric constrains the winner of the political contest, at least a little, as the winner may have future contests and needs to avoid flagrant hypocrisy to win down the road.
Second, and probably more significantly, the rhetoric can take on a life of its own and move the center of the debate in one direction or another. This latter effect can immediately undercut a politician's favoured course (example: Bush and the Dubai ports deal), but can also ripple down through the years, shaping entire political platforms (example: Barry Goldwater).
Thus, it is heartening to see a Republican candidate for president staking out these sorts of positions, no matter what his motivations may be:
Here is a piece of Salon's profile, as quoted by Yglesias (with our patent-pending Bellman bolding):
"If I really know what it means to follow Jesus, it means no kid goes hungry tonight," he said, at one stop in Iowa. "It means no wife gets the daylights beat out of her by some alcoholic abusive husband. It means no kid lives in a neighborhood where he is scared to death of some child predator that is going to pick him up and carry him off. It means not one single elderly person has to make the choice between food or medicine." Unlike former Sen. Rick Santorum or Sen. Sam Brownback, Huckabee does not spend time pounding the pulpit over baby murder and sodomy. He's a self-styled "compassionate conservative," a poll-tested concept that worked once before. But while President Bush discarded the slogan like a prom queen's sash, Huckabee wants to convince America that he is the real deal.
Leading off with poverty? That's the starting position of the so-called "Religious Left." Taken seriously, it implies all sorts of positions that are far closer to my left-wing nutjob socialism than the policies pursued by any Republicans in my lifetime.
Here is another bit of the Salon profile, as quoted by Ezra Klein:
[Huckabee] has refused to take the predictable path by talking tough on crime to deflect the DuMond criticism. Instead, he campaigns on a compassionate approach to wrongdoers, especially those whose crimes are the result of drug or alcohol addiction. At Philly's Finest, he condemned the "revenge-based corrections system," sounding every bit the sort of squishy liberal that the Bill O'Reillys of the world long ago scared into the shadows. "We lock up a lot of people we are mad at rather than the ones we are really afraid of," he said. "We incarcerate more people than anybody on earth." As governor, Huckabee pushed for drug treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent offenders. He pushed for faith-based prison programs, and was critical of governors who "gladly pull the switch" on death penalty cases, an apparent knock on President Bush, who was criticized as governor of Texas for being cavalier about capital punishment.
This is the exactly the kind of position, written into platform after platform of the Democratic party, that makes me a Democrat. However, our Dem Congressfolk and Presidents haven't acted on this position--or even tried very hard to shape the debate--for some time. Our highly-paid inside-the-beltway consultants tell us that hammering on this sort of thing will lose us votes rather than gain them.
And they might be right. But at some point somebody has to actually fight to fix the clusterfrak that is our prison-industrial complex. And if that person turns out to be a Republican, that person might just gain more votes than he loses for doing so. He might just get mine.
At the very least, I'm happy to see anyone out there pushing on my side of the envelope.