Barack v. Hillary: Maneuver Warfare

But Cassius and Brutus were the most gloriously conspicuous–precisely because their statues were not to be seen. Tacitus

In looking at this election cycle, pundits have been talking about the importance of authenticity. “It is fatal for a politician to look fake. They must show that they believe in something with conviction. The public has grown tired of professional politicians.” But this is nothing new. The desire for authenticity in leaders comes and goes in cycles. John F. Kennedy benefited from this hunger and he also knew how to exploit it to maximum effect. He was not fake, but he could be a consummate actor when necessary. Andrew Jackson was perhaps our first great politician to use this dynamic to gain power. (In this vein, I recommend one of my favorite all-time books The Fall of Public Man, by Richard Sennett.)

Authenticity is a tricky thing. In dealing with people we know, it is hard to read through a person and see how deep their sincerity runs. Children learn how to play up their emotions for effect, and when we see people being emotional, we tend to think it is authentic. There are, however, certain give-away signs; we can often discern people who are fake by their body language and facial expressions–a Richard Nixon, or Mitt Romney come to mind. On the other hand, we can be easily duped by these same eyes. Ronald Reagan would be seem to be the archetype of the genuine politician, whether you liked him or not, but Reagan was an actor–schooled by years in Hollywood and television commercials in how to make sincerity count on camera, how to convey conviction. He was not necessarily fake, but an actor nonetheless.

It is hard to base a judgment of a political figure on such tricky things. And it is just as hard to win an election based primarily on appearing more authentic than the other side. Kennedy won the election partly by framing himself as new, fresh, more genuine than the stuffy figures of the Eisenhower era, but this framing was very strategic. He also benefited from the timing of his campaign–a moment of relative prosperity when people were yearning for change. Something was in the air. He exploited this.

In the end, in war, business or politics, it is strategy that will secure your victory, not the depth of your emotions or convictions. Authenticity or the appearance of it can certainly help (or hurt in some cases), but is never enough.

As I talked about it in Strategy 20 of the WAR book, politics is maneuver warfare: staking out positions and fighting for them. Taking positions that push you into corners might gain you some momentary success, as you come out fighting, but in the end, you have decreasing options and you end up tiring the public by doing the same thing, by being so predictable.

Franklin Roosevelt was the master of the game, although he had the advantage of dealing with much shorter campaign times. His goal was to seem overall like a strong leader, with definite convictions, but to never commit too tightly to anything early on in the campaign. He wanted positions that would allow him to react to inevitable changes in the news and exploit them. He wanted flexibility and at the same time he used his opponents’ rigid, one-line ideas, to push them further into corners. He set a firm tone, took an overall stance (against big business, for the working man), but gave himself room to maneuver. He was amazingly fluid, striking back at his opponents or playing above the fray, depending on what was needed for the moment. He won four presidential campaigns.

With all this in mind, let us look at the three main Democratic candidates as they play maneuver warfare. First and least would have to be John Edwards. Like a boxer who comes to rely on one punch and finds himself boxed into a corner, John Edwards came out at the bell as the fighter for the middle class. This position may have looked good at the start, as he staked out solid positions. But it is a position that is too familiar from elections in the 80s or 90s. It does not wear well over time. It becomes a one-note campaign that may gain in stridency but wears down your patience and interest over the months of this primary slog. It is a defensive posture that ends up in a corner, where it will die.

Barack Obama has taken more of the JFK approach. His message has been remarkably consistent, backed up by his record. He is running a positive campaign, focused on uniting the country, and on the future. It is politics for a new generation, not predicated on the old wars of the baby boomers. He has not strayed from this and so it seems quite authentic. He has been admirably consistent. On specific issues he has come out with specific programs, all framed by a coherent philosophy. Because it is not tied to anything as rigid as being the defender of the middle class, he does not appear a one-note candidate and you do not grow bored of hearing his speeches. He can change the subject without veering from an overall tone.

The problem is that his strategy is very much dependent on circumstance. When times are good, people are in the mood for such an uplifting message. Then you can catch wind in your sails and even tack in certain directions, all carried away by your optimism. This worked brilliantly for Kennedy. In such times, people are more willing to take a risk on somebody new. (Bear in mind as well that Kennedy had more years in the Senate and had his World War II experiences to round out his resume.) It also helps in such circumstances to paint the other side as conservative, a force from the past, to play up what is uninspiring in their message. (It helps to have Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon as your main opponent.)

When world events were at a relative lull, Obama was in a good position. When the worsening economy began to take center stage, his message did not resonate as well, and his options shrank. And considering the volatile nature of the times we live in, it would have been better to bet on problems and difficult times up ahead. His message remains consistent, rings true, but has less and less appeal when future problems loom more than future possibilities. (It is not a question of him having altered his strategy, which he could and should not do, but the timing–a few more years in the Senate, and some patience.)

It is not too late to remedy this, but he is facing the tag-team of Master Triangulators. Triangulation is Dick Morris’s name for something that Clinton did that is a variation on the old military strategy of according with the enemy, what I call Mirroring in the 48 Laws, and discuss as well in the Counterattack Strategy.

So much of marketing or politics involves separation–what makes you different from all the other politicians out there. Hillary has her years as First Lady, her solid seven-year record in the Senate, her famous husband. She can stand apart as the person with the most experience, the most battle-tested, and it is hard to take that away from her. Obama has successfully separated himself as the agent of change, a new face, somebody to break up the stale politics of Washington. A figure of hope. He also has his solid stance against the war.

The triangulation strategy means embracing Obama so tightly that he cannot get away anymore and separate himself. On the Iraq war–move Hillary in his direction, make her come out with new proclamations about getting out of Iraq that are parallel to his. Obfuscate her past votes on the war by focusing attention on the future. In one debate, she masterfully asked Obama to agree to the same commitment to end the war. On change, make the argument she would be the first woman president–an undeniable shift in the political landscape.

On the seamier side, bait Barack Obama into dirty fights about his own record and votes. If he avoids the bait, he starts to look a bit weak and as if he were hiding something. If he takes the bait, as he did in the past debate, he starts to look less and less like a different kind of politician, losing the one sterling quality that separated him from the others in this war over position.

It is a masterful bit of strategizing. If some of the dirt rubs off on Hillary, as it will, much of it will really settle on Bill, who is willing to be sullied at this point. Besides, she is not building her campaign on her purity and nobility in spirit. She is the tough lady, the Margaret Thatcher of the Democratic Party, who will get the job done. From her down moment in New Hampshire she has shown remarkable fluidity. She can play the underdog, the victim of sorts. She can also be the crusader. This flexibility does not come off as mere opportunism, as with a Mitt Romney, because it is anchored by her core message of being the candidate of experience. She has not tailored her message to each audience, like Romney, merely shifted tone to fit the circumstance.

For Obama, he has not lost yet. But he must not repeat the mistakes of the debate. He must strike a delicate balance of deflecting their accusations in a more diplomatic manner, showing a difference in feel and attitude. He is not a politician in their style. Let others on his team, surrogates if you will, make the case about his record on the Iraq War, or his votes in Illinois. Focus attention as much as he can on the future, on what he will do to change the dynamic in Washington and make the case that Hillary will bring more of the same stalemate by exactly the kind of partisan bickering she is trying to stir up. Anger does not play well on television. Being spirited and enthusiastic has great infecting power, but anger makes everyone uncomfortable. (In the televised debates of 1960, it was Nixon who seemed to lose his cool.)

The problem for the Democrats, as they face in each election, is where all of this positions the eventual winner once it is all over. John Kerry, for instance, left himself in a terrible position after winning the nomination. This is something to analyze in more detail when I look at the maneuvering of the Republicans and how it will play out for the general election.

One final note: much has been made of the unusualness of this campaign cycle. This generally refers to how volatile it has been, how there is no clear frontrunner in either party, how unpredictable it has all become. Attention is generally focused on the candidates. On the Democratic side, the voters have some good, solid choices and so their votes are evenly split. On the Republican side, the lack of a candidate to excite the public is why things go back and forth and no one can seem to win two primaries in a row.

My theory would be different. I would look at the voters instead of the candidates, the changed cultural landscape of America. We are a much more fragmented public than ever before. Our minds are barraged by so much information from so many directions. We find it harder and harder to focus on anything for very long. Because of this our loyalties to a brand, to a politician, to a rock group are much thinner. There are too many things competing for our attention. This makes us vulnerable to changes in the air, to circumstances altering our opinions, to wild viral swings.

This is not to say that some people do not feel very deeply attached to one candidate or the other, only that there are less people than before who feel this way and there are more of the undecideds, the ambivalents, etc. One candidate will win, and people will attach themselves to him or her, but this attachment is a bit tenuous. Politics is so much more complicated than before. It is time to re-read The Prince. Just a theory.

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