Friday, May 25, 2007

Bill Clinton, Strategist in Chief

In New Role, Senator Clinton's Strategist in Chief was published in the New York Times on May 13, 2007. This article is interesting insofar as it reflects a widespread understanding of "strategy" that we have noticed all along. This is all the more interesting since this article presents Bill Clinton not only as a mere strategist, but as some sort of super strategist. Accordingly, one might be forgiven to expect to learn something about the long-term goals and big picture thinking of this super politician. But there is nothing of this sort. Instead, strategy is reduced to electoral strategy and, as is frequently the case, is being confused with tactics.

The following excerpts are supposed to illustrate this point:
Bill Clinton's connections, and his endless supply of chits, only begin to capture his singular role in his wife's presidential candidacy, advisers and friends of the couple say. He is the master strategist behind the scenes; the consigliere to the head of ''the family,'' as some Clinton aides refer to her operation; and a fund-raising machine who is steadily pulling in $100,000 or more at receptions.
So far, his roles have unfolded in private as he provides ideas to his wife and makes sure she paces herself, and as he acts as something of a field general with donors, instructing them on how to talk up Mrs. Clinton.
The Clintons mostly talk about strategy, not campaign management, advisers say. (my emphasis)
Now, when I read this sentence, I got excited, expecting to hear something about strategy; I was all the more disappointed when I read on to see how the paragraph continued:
He receives polling data from Mr. Penn, who was his pollster in 1996, and the two men speak regularly. He sometimes looks over drafts of Mrs. Clinton's major speeches, and he gives her feedback on her performances.
Advisers say his advice to her can be boiled down to a few broad themes. He urges her to remember that the biggest person gets elected (in other words, the one who rises above political pettiness) and that the most optimistic candidate wins. He has encouraged her to talk about average people who work hard and play by the rules, classic Clintonian language. And she has, using those phrases and other themes in talking, for example, about regular Americans who are ''invisible'' to the Bush administration. (Advisers say Mr. Clinton did not devise the invisible line.)
So apparently this is how the leading paper in the country understands strategy, essentially as polling, framing, and messaging. Interestingly enough, in a profile of Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, the other leading paper in this country, the Washington Post, exhibits a similar understanding of strategy. Clinton's PowerPointer: With Data and Slides, a Pollster Guides Campaign Strategy of April 30, 2007, appeared in the Post's series "The Gurus: The professionals who manage the machinery of American politics."

With the same pollster in charge of "strategy," a very similar network of advisers and a very similar platform, one should not be surprised to get with Hillary what the country got with Bill: Clintonism 2.0, the updated version. Not surprisingly, apparently one of the Clinton campaign's major concerns is whether the country is ready for yet another Clinton or whether there is still too much "Clinton fatigue" around.

One way for progressives further to the left to respond to this state of progressive "strategy" is to quote the great strategist Sun Tzu: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." For indeed, the sad truth is that winning elections is the be all and end all of centrist strategy. Getting Clinton (or Obama, or ...) elected is the ultimate goal. By the way, it is rather sobering to contemplate that if Clinton got elected and re-elected, that would give us 28 years (almost three decades!) of uninterrupted rule by the two most powerful political machines in the country.

For more liberal progressives however, this state of affairs is precisely part of the problem, not part of the solution. For them, getting yet another centrist elected is "tactics without strategy," is "the noise before defeat," because this is not the way to significantly change the country. You win a battle, but you lose the war. Hence the urgent need to develop a strategy that allows us to win the war.

By necessity, this strategy goes far beyond election cycles. That seems to be one of the reasons why hardly anybody is thinking about it. What you find much more is something along those lines: 'Bush is so bad, we absolutely have to get a Democrat elected in 08! Now it is even more urgent than in 2004!! This must be our absolute priority!! Electability is everything!!!' -- And then what?

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