There is a gap between politics and policy. Good politics will get you elected. Good policy will improve quality of life. Good politics focuses on getting power over. Good policy focuses on giving power to.
If you were campaigning for the votes of medieval serfs, you'd probably win votes by speaking out against witches who curse crops and babies and generally make life miserable. Your promise to crack down on witches might even get you elected. By contrast, the policies you'd want to pursue to actually make life less miserable - policies like turning the commons into private property so as to encourage investment, weakening the grip of the church on communities, and encouraging free thinking - would be met with, at best, tepid support and advocating such policies might not just cost you votes but could, indeed, cost you your life. Because every era has its superstitions and cultural momentum, there has always been a gap between what makes for good politics and what makes for good policy.
For my nickel, no one has better illustrated the gap between effective politics and effective policy than George Bush and Karl Rove. The most obvious example of policy that made for good politics and bad policy was, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. George and Karl were masters of politics and the two stooges of policy, a frightening reminder that voters can be easier to seduce than reality. And there is nothing more dangerous than a politician who understands politics but has little interest in policy. Such a politician can do even more damage than someone with evil intentions.
For me there is a key to distinguish between policy and politics lies in the difference between power over and power to. Good policy not only improves lives, it gives people power to do things that they couldn't otherwise. Policy that provides education to children whose parents can't afford it, that is policy that gives people power to. Educated women have more power to choose whether to have families and how many children to have. Education is a classic example of policy that gives power to. By contrast, policy that only lets certain kinds of people own property or vote or choose whether to control one’s own reproduction is policy that exercises power over. This power over might make for popular politics (the distaste of the masses for minorities like gays, blacks, and rich), but it rarely makes for good policy that actually improves quality of life.
As you listen to the candidates, listen for what they are proposing and the kind of power that seems to enthrall them. Do they want to limit what people can do in bedrooms and boardrooms or do they want to enable people, including the poor or the minorities in privileges the mainstream take for granted? The former often makes for good politics - the latter usually makes for good policy. The more we’re aware of this, the smaller the gap between the two. After all, the success of a democracy ultimately rests on a confluence between successful politics and successful policy. What we don't need next year is to embark on another 8 year learning experience.