Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 13, 2008

Zen and the Art of Politics

538-campaign-alertNate Silver at FiveThirtyEight came up with this lovely chart to guide you through the next three weeks of the McCain campaign.

We’ll be at Yellow or above the rest of the way.

Silver was talking about the McCain campaign’s announcement that they were going to “reboot” their campaign – not with new policy proposals, as Lindsay Graham suggested over the weekend before he was left hanging out to dry, but with…wait for it…

A new speech.

I’m sure Barack Obama will be so flummoxed he’ll start dangling participles and splitting infinitives.

This isn’t over – it’s never over until it’s over, as the great Yogi Berra once said – but the odds against McCain are pretty astronomical. The sort of poll movement McCain needs rarely happens.

So I want to step back for a moment.

“Life can only be understood backwards,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, “but it must be lived forwards.”

Which means that those who can understand their opponents and can accurately predict their actions have a significant advantage over those who can’t.

Let’s see if someone in this campaign was eerily prescient [h/t The Jed Report]:

As Jed Lewison says, now we can call him “Nostrobamus.”

Since politics is so often compared to battle, let’s talk about that.

To start, three concepts.

First, from Dave Lowry, recounting a discussion among martial artists about toughness:

It was Clyde Kimura, from Kauai, who spoke with a final authority. The toughest individuals he’d ever encountered, he said, were kendoka. “The old ones,” he said. “A kendo man who’s in his mid-sixties, been training about 50 years,” Kimura said firmly, “he can take an incredible amount of abuse.”

I have often reflected on Kimura-san’s words. Interesting, isn’t it, that his concept of toughness was not in how much one could dish out, but in how much one can take?

The Japanese term Lowry used is uke-waza.

Second, from Joe Hyams, recounting a lesson from the great Bruce Lee:

Before I started to study the martial arts, I was easily intimidated by false images of strength….In a confrontation with such a person I usually reacted in an extreme manner….

One day Bruce Lee took me out to the center of the driveway at my home….Then he had me pivot slowly around while he drew a chalk circle around me, whose radius was the length of my extended leg.

Lee then stood outside the circle, feinting attacks, and chided Hyams for reacting. From that distance, he pointed out, he couldn’t do any harm.

“…suppose I stand at the edge of your circle. Am I a real threat to you?”

I shook my head. “Not really. But suppose I am physically threatened within my circle?”

“When your opponent is inside your circle and you cannot or will not retreat any further, you must fight. But until then, you should maintain your control and your distance.”

Finally, for good measure, a Chinese proverb:

He who strikes the first blow admits he’s lost the argument.

Which, in the martial arts, translates roughly into he who strikes first, loses.

Because Barack Obama was tough (uke-waza), he could take attacks (“Celebrity”; “Elitist”) that weren’t fatal; because he understood his circle, he didn’t respond when he didn’t have to. (And when he did – in his convention speech – he left those attacks in shards on the ground.) And he mostly continues, to this day, to let McCain swing at him, and then jab at the opening left behind.

Now, Obama was helped immensely by two factors outside of his control.

First, the economic meltdown made it impossible for the McCain campaign to ride a wave of trivia to the White House. That said, I think the debates would have had a similar, if less dramatic, effect.

Second, McCain’s un-vetted selection of Sarah Palin was like borrowing poll numbers from a loanshark – he paid back what he got with some wicked interest.

But mostly, Obama and his top aides had a plan. They anticipated the types of attacks they would face, and decided how and when they would respond. Their one brief moment of imbalance – after Palin was selected – was fairly quickly righted and they went back to focusing on McCain and Bush. They had a strategy of countering the most dangerous attack – that Obama was inexperienced and risky – by presenting Obama as he is: unnervingly calm and reassuring.

At a time, as Andrew Sullivan points out, when calm is what we want:

The polling around the country is now more emphatically Democratic than ever before. Obama is now ahead in every battleground state and, by most estimates, could lose all the currently close states and still win the election.

And still he’s calm. Not too cocky. A little aloof, but very professional. He learnt all of this as a black man in a white country: no sudden moves; no anger. That’s how he managed his white mother in adolescence. That’s how he manages a white electorate increasingly at ease with him. And, by a massive stroke of luck, that’s what voters want now. In an economy that is melting down, with two wars still raging, they want calm above everything else. They want to know that the man in charge will not panic, will not be flustered, will not blow up.

They need a Valium. They can now vote for one for president.

As opposed to John McCain, to whom a different Samurai maxim applies: The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life.

I’m certain this race will tighten – they almost always do – but I’m also certain of two other things.

John McCain will show signs of panic.

Barack Obama won’t.


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