Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Review: The Way to Win

While I'm an economics and public policy junkie, I am not a political junkie, and don't enjoy politics, especially not modern politics. Nevetheless, as I've complained before, all the best public policy you have at your disposal falls apart if you can't win the election, so reading this book was my way of educating myself as to how successful politicians win elections, and what does it take to be one.

This book covers Bill Clinton's elections, Karl Rove's two successful campaigns for Bush, as well as Hilary Clinton's rehabilitation of her public image. It identifies the peculiar brand of modern politics, as epitomized by Matt Drudge, as the Freak Show, which emphasizes partisanism and anything goes, which drives the media cycle, since the Old Media has no choice but to follow the New.

Sprinkled all throughout is various bits of advice to future politicians as to what to do and how to go about doing it. Surprisingly enough, the authors have plenty of emphasis about a mastery of policies:
Truly knowing your stuff allows a candidate to avoid awkward mistakes, but that is not the most important advantage. When Clinton was preparing for a debate or a major news conference, his staff did not have to waste time testing him on substantive answers. The preparation instead was devoted to figuring out how best to present the correct response... This is a luxury not enjoyed by most campaigns, who know that they are always one wrong answer.

The corresponding Bush campaign tactic was to ignore any policy questions they did not care about by answering with generalities but then respond substantively about issues they did care about. As the authors point out, it's quite unlikely that future politicians will be as willing or capable of mastering the policy side of the campaign as Clinton was.

By far the best part of the book has to do with its analysis of Karl Rove. While he's been much demonized by many, this book will leave you with a new found respect for how smart and hard working Rove is. Not only was he the political strategist, he was also the policy analyst, the chief of information technology, and the marketing coordinator. He is the equivalent of a master architect who doesn't hesistate to dive down and write assembly code to optimize an inner loop. I suspect that someone that smart doesn't come along very often, and the fact that he's on the Republican camp means that future Democratic candidates are going to have a really tough time.

The book does point out a few things that are depressing for a staunch progressive:
  1. The inherent nature of freak show politics is more beneficial to Republican candidates than it is for Democratic candidates
  2. Maintaining your Image is everything. This is going to make future presidential campaigns even more vicious than ever.
  3. All future candidates are likely to opt out of the federal financing system, ensuring that wealthy people will have a lot more say about politics than normal people.
This book also covers a lot of the failures the Gore and Kerry campaigns had. When lined up against Rove, it was obvious that these were amateurs playing against a master of the game.

Finally, there's an analysis of Hilary Clinton as a potential future presidential candidate, covering her senatorial elections which have demonstrated her ability as a politician and her mastery of freak show politics.

All in all, I learnt a lot in this book. It seems that while Abraham Lincoln was right in that one cannot fool all of the people all of the time, fooling all of the people just twice (for two election cycles) is all that's necessary to squander a budget surplus, involve the country in an extremely bad war with no good outcomes, while at the same time eliminating traditional political freedoms. I can only hope that the American public has had enough bad policy to step away from freak show politics some time in the future. Not that I'm betting on such an outcome any time soon!

In any case, this book is highly recommended, especially if you don't watch TV, don't read political blogs, and in general is always surprised by how the other 50% of the country always votes against you.

For those readers who think she cannot win, get over your delusion.

If Hilary Clinton chooses to run for president in 2008, she can win. That is not the same as saying she
will win, or even that she is favored to win. But if she decides to run, she will be a formidable candidate, with significant advantages over every other plausible Democratic candidate...
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