All good politicians know the difference between leading the parade and following it; the best ones get to do so on their own terms and consequently make it look easy.
Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin were idealists who brilliantly manipulated the system to accept ideas outside the norm. Revolutionary politicians like Reagan and Yeltsin make change and often change for the better. Idealists, however, cannot change anything if they do not get elected and they cannot get elected unless they convince the most people that they are the best alternative, which often involves forcing them to see things differently.
The difference between good and great politicians is their ability to accomplish this.
That, in a nutshell, is "The Strategy of Campaigning," a compilation work by some very serious political scientists Kiron Skinner and Bruce Bueno De Mesquita at the Hoover Institution, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Serhiy Kudelia of Johns Hopkins.
The authors' assessment may sound harsh and sometimes skeptical even for academics but their revelation is not as stark as it sounds. Reagan and Yeltsin did prove to be revolutionary figures and their revolutionary ideas had to come from somewhere. These "outlier" positions cannot maneuver successfully within a classic political equilibrium where arguments are judged by their audience on their "truth-value, communication-value, and persuasion value." This is because conventional wisdom always has a middling effect: the most amenable position to most voters is the position closest to their own. Therefore, extremist positions are sure losers — unless you use "herestetics" or manipulation to reframe the debate on your own terms and overcome the tit-for-tat sniping that dominates most campaigns.
Now, herestetics is neither social science-speak for verbal brainwashing nor is it "manipulation" in the classic sense. Rather herestetical campaigning is persuasion by idea organization. The middling effect on most issues and campaigns works out to a zero sum game, with each candidate trying to get closer to the position of the most voters on the most issues. Instead of grandiose me-too-ism, Herestetics says that candidates, given the right circumstances, can link major and apparently contradictory principles and breakthrough otherwise solid voter biases.
Only candidates with great conviction or little to lose under the status quo would risk political oblivion by advocating the unpopular. On the other hand, traditional candidates, like Richard Nixon in 1968, take positions on issues in order to extend their base of support at the expense of their opponent, while trying to not alienate voters unnecessarily. This results in the familiar public dance of politicians desperate to disprove the maxim, "you can't please all of the people all of the time."
"Triangulation,” too, has its limits and "rhetoric" politicians like Nixon or Bill Clinton had to look for something else to further set them apart from their opponents. "The Strategy of Campaigning" tells us when positive persuasion fails, rhetoric-reliant politicians do what comes naturally: go negative. Negative persuasion polarizes the indifferent voters (mostly to your side) and demoralizes all but your opponent's most hardcore backers; it's a win-win despite what the media finger-waggers want to believe.
Then, on both counts, the middling effect has made our leaders lying, dodging, mud-slinging scoundrels.
Beyond their study of the archetypal 1968 rhetoric based Nixon campaign, the authors offer two shining portraits in Reagan and Boris Yeltsin of how candidates can win elections with their convictions intact — well, most of them. Both revolutionaries faced a great deal of resistance and political failure before achieving their political goals. Yeltsin's miscalculation that his audience (The Politburo) would willing act against its own self-interest saw him expelled from that body in 1988 only to emerge victorious two years later. His masterstroke lies in tying together two disparate but independently popular ideas: Russian autonomy and market liberalization.
His rivals, both the hardline Russian reactionaries and Gorbachev, remained stuck in the push-pull of normal political equilibrium. They vied for advantage at every turn but failed to see Yeltsin had redefined the political terrain, simultaneously a Russian nationalist and liberalizer. Although brilliant, Yeltsin's herestetics would have been impossible had Gorbachev not further opened the political system and spurred on Baltic nationalism leaving Yeltsin a window to jump through.
"The Strategy for Campaigning" deals at much greater length with Reagan's journey to the White House and his pitfalls along the way. For as the authors imply time and again, true political visionaries (herestetes) are not born, they are made. Many conviction politicians fell into the abyss before one Reagan or Yeltsin could emerge to achieve those ends. Nixon beat out his GOP rivals by playing by the rules of game, wooing the party bosses and remaining vague on the details to maximize his winning coalition. Reagan’s 1968 convention challenge went nowhere because it, like Yeltsin’s Politburo rebellion, did not appeal to the centers of power. In both cases, Reagan and Yeltsin applied their convictions in a hostile environment and failed.
But the system changed drastically in the intervening years between 1968 and 1980 as conservative grass-roots organizations, inspired and often led by Reagan, pushed political power away from the party bosses toward primaries and public activism. Seemingly overnight, conservatives like Reagan were ascendant, though partially due to serendipitous events like Watergate and Vietnam and the failures of Jimmy Carter that discredited unreconstructed centrism.
Into this void leaped Ronald Wilson Reagan who pushed for a novel combination of less government and no compromise with the Soviets — two positions that were outside the realm of serious discussion, especially after Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964.
According to Skinner, Rice et al. Reagan’s “linkage” of total national security and boundless economic growth reframed the debate that hitherto had revolved around limits and balance. The postwar consensus had held that guns and butter had to be weighed against one another in near-Malthusian terms. Reagan rejected both permanent coexistence with evil and the fatalism of the command economy that marked Keynesian economics. In doing so, he built a winning coalition of hawkish socially conservative blue collar workers and traditional libertarian-leaning Republicans.
This “fusionist” coalition, originally pinpointed by National Review’s Frank Meyer, broke the traditional Republican-Democrat split and left a fractious rump in the Democratic coalition to squabble over a new direction.
Although it appears obvious to us today, this coalition might never have been had Reagan trumpeted all his views as loudly and clearly as he did his less government and anti-communist mantras. Some issues like abortion were often absent from Reagan’s daily stump speeches and commercials. Reagan did not have to lie about his positions as do many rhetoric politicians, instead he simply focused on the larger issues at hand. Herestetes, like Reagan, win arguments with extreme ideas not with obfuscation but by changing what is being debated.
Reagan might not have beat Carter on point-by-point comparison of tax policies or arms reduction plans because his positions would have been considered by the Intelligentsia outside of the mainstream. Instead, Reagan proposed new terms on which the debate should be settled and thus moved the debate towards more favorable ground. What is our objective in the Cold War? Of course, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is the all-time show stopping device of how to change the terms of the debate. And should the government manage our lives? When voters were faced with new questions, Reagan formed overwhelming coalitions.
Get the authors' book "The Strategy for Campaigning" — Go Here Now.
Mr. Shirley is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed "Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All."
Mr. Kennedy is a 2006 graduate of Berkeley where he received a BA in history. He is now Mr. Shirley’s principal research assistant on "Rendezvous with Destiny," about the 1980 Reagan campaign.
It will be published by ISI Books and is due out in May of 2008.
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