Anatomy of a successful politican

23 Jan

A friend sent us a link to an interesting op-ed from the New York Times Sunday Review.

The NY Times doesn’t believe in fair use so we’ll take the author’s points – which make a lot of sense – and mix it up with our point of view.

Let’s start with some numbers:

We have 300 million people in our country.
Millions of them are involved in politics, from volunteers to people wanting to run for office.
We have hundreds of thousands of elected officials from small town positions to Congress.

Somehow – with all this – the Republican Party has been unable to find a candidate for the White House who excites people.

It’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen.

As bad as this year’s GOP field is, it matches other recent weak presidential runs, from the Democrats in 1988 and 2004 to the Republicans in 1996.

In presidential politics, the great talents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan seem to be the exception.

That’s because a successful presidential candidate calls on a set of talents that rarely come in one person.

First, a great politician needs to be a great manager.
Few politicians are because it’s a different skill set.

The candidate has to run his or her campaign, be good at fund-raising, know how to spot great people and know when to micromanage and when to delegate.

This is the arm-twisting, organization-building, endorsement-corralling side of presidential politics, and not surprisingly it tends to favor insiders and deal-makers and old Washington hands.

But these people are rarely comfortable with the more public, glad-handing, self-advertising side of politics.

The great manager is unlikely to be a great persuader, capable of seducing undecided voters with his empathy, or inspiring them with his or her vision.

The great manager is also unlikely to capable of demonizing his enemies and convincing his supporters that they stand at the Gates of Hell and it’s time to battle for the Lord.

The manager can do all this but the you will always see a hint of irony, a touch of phoniness, a sense that the candidate much rather get back to the inside game.

And even if you have the gift of demonizing someone, it rarely overlaps with the gift of persuasion.

The opposite is true.
The politician who’s good at reaching out to the unconverted is usually mistrusted by his own base, and the politician whose us-versus-them speeches inspire devotion among the faithful usually can not shift to a more transcendent, unifying style.

For example, if Jon Huntsman had a little more Sarah Palin in him, or Palin a bit more Huntsman, one of them might have been the 2012 Republican nominee.

But their respective gifts are rarely shared in a single personality.

When a politician somehow hits the manager-persuader-demagogue jackpot, he can seem unstoppable.

All one has to do is look back at Franklin Roosevelt and his four terms in office.

But just going two for three is usually enough to create an immensely formidable candidate.

Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were great persuaders and great demagogues.

They could smooze with high-minded appeals one moment and twist the knife the next.

That combination more than made up for their weaknesses as managers.

Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t much of a demagogue, but he was great at playing the unifier in public and at organizational hardball behind closed doors.

Richard Nixon could out-organize and out-demonize just about anyone — at least until his paranoia infected his management style, and undid everything he’d built.

The losers in presidential history usually had only one gift out of three.

They’re good managers, more often than not, whose organizations outlast demagogues and persuaders in the primaries but who can neither rally the base nor inspire the center in the general election.

Walter Mondale beat Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart but crushed by Ronald Reagan.
Then there was Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis.
And John Kerry in 2004.

This brings us to Mitt Romney.

A manager to his core.
The question is what kind of opponent he’ll find waiting in November.

Back in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to have almost F.D.R.-like gifts.
He out-managed, out-inspired and out-demagogued both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

But the presidency exposed his limits as a communicator, something he excelled at during his earlier campaigns.

Now when Obama demonizes, it seems clumsy.

When he tries to persuade, no one listens.

Unlike Reagan and Clinton, the two masters, he seems unable to either bully or inspire.

But what Obama has left is the same capable, even ruthless organization that helped him over the top last time around.

Maybe he’ll rediscover the old 2008 magic – but if not – the 2012 election is shaping up to be the most boring sort of American presidential campaign: a clash of two managers, slogging their way toward a prize that a stronger candidate might have taken in a walk.

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