Wanted: A Political Strategy

A Wasted Crisis
August 12, 2012
Hey, You! Eat Here!
February 4, 2013
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(Originally published Aug. 23, 2012, in Dilema Veche, here.)

Given the tone of political conversation in Romania these past several weeks, clearly there is no need anymore for subtlety, tact, or gentlemanly discourse – if there ever was.

Probity and clarity, however, would be a nice change. So let me say, (despite the fact that Mr. Basescu “won” the recent referendum), in more than 40 years of on-and-off involvement in politics, I cannot remember a more inept, misguided or amateurish national political campaign than the one I just saw performed by the anti-USL side.

Or rather, and perhaps more to the point, by the absence of any coherent anti-USL side.

I was going to let this drop. I was going to be more polite. But clearly, despite the vote, the arguing and positioning is not over. And it’s almost too painful to watch.

You don’t need to read many books (or even copy and paste from them) to know some basics in political strategy. Or, if you’re too busy, you don’t even need to read a whole book. Start with a quick Google search. Plug in “cynical political quotes” and you’ll find plenty of guiding principles. Here’s one I found that is perfect to apply here:

“In politics, madame, you need two things: friends, but above all an enemy.” That was said by Brian Mulroney (according to the internet) and is perhaps the only thing the former Prime Minister of Canada will be remembered for – and in fact, might be the only memorable thing I’ve ever heard a Canadian say.

So, given that quote, what did we see in the past several weeks? We saw the USL side apparently instinctively recognize this truth. They found an enemy and never let go.

And the other side? Well, what other side?

That’s the point. What was so surprising was that there was nothing new in the world happening here. It was a simple example of crisis management being needed in politics. Because whether in politics or in business, there are strategies for confronting such things: accept responsibility for that portion for which you are responsible; for the rest, however, make very clear the larger principle – whatever that is. If you’re not sure what it is, make it up. And if the other side is the first to attack, respond quickly and change the target. In other words, get out of the way – and create an enemy. Cynical, yes, but effective.

If this was too much for a disorganized and confused “other side” to manage, at the very least, they could have tried the old Clinton favorites: “I did something bad. But let’s not dwell in the past. It’s time to look forward.” Or even perhaps: “I did something very, very, very bad. But let’s not sink to the politics of personal destruction.” The best, of course, is to use both at once.

Either of these might have worked if Mr. Basescu had been truly caught doing something – one thing – wrong. Like having sex with an intern.

Unfortunately, for him, that’s not what he did. It was not that simple. He was the problem. Not what he did – despite the impeachment charges. No, it was him. Pure and simple. Just him. All that was wrong was laid at his feet. He has been president for years. Much has gone wrong. And the austerity cuts the country adopted have hurt many people. This, plus the fact that he had his own image problems to begin with, made him a target just waiting for attack.. Impeaching him for cutting the budget in line with what the IMF wanted was a laughable excuse.

So when the attack began, what did Mr. Basescu do? What did “his” entire other side do? What did almost everyone who opposed the USL side do? They left Mr. Basescu out there. On his own — a bulls-eye firmly fixed right between his eyes. There was no finesse. There was no strategy except to let him go toe-to-toe with the opposition. (To be fair, of course, maybe he made that decision.) So in the end, what we witnessed was, at best, the absence of a political strategy; at worst, it was a strategy that was terribly misguided.

The USL side could not have asked for anything better. Going toe to toe was exactly what they should have wanted — to demonize Mr. Basescu both personally and politically. To have him out there every day was a blessing. No matter that he was warning about the constitutional damage. He was the problem. Yes, it is a fallacious ad hominem argument to attack the messenger to discredit the message, but it’s an effective one also.

Now, to be fair, from what I saw, Mr. Basescu did indeed attempt some good strategy. He picked up the laudable tactic of finding a principle (in this case the constitution), the principle of law, the sanctity of the justicial system.

Despite the silly backdrop of the cover of the constitution, it might have been effective – but it was never enough to win. The public does not rally to the defense of a document. It is too intangible. It has too many concepts. It has too many words.

No. A single principle is better. A rallying cry. A catchy slogan. Or even a host of them as long as they are presented one at a time.

But to deliver a slogan, or a series of many, you need a group of messengers that are not the very target that is under attack. Isn’t that what a political party is for? So where was the army of surrogates coming to a defense? Where were the politically active “outsiders” with no ulterior motive? Where was the money and advertising and other messages created and paid for by “disinterested” (but very interested) parties? Not to come to Mr. Basescu’s defense; that was not feasible, or politically wise. But to show the public what was really at stake?

For that matter, in fact, where were the public appearances and rallies by the country’s intellectuals, respected figures, scholars, and business people? Was this battle really only dirty politics that had few repercussions? Or is everyone that scared of being on the wrong side of this transient and misguided moment in history? Is everyone that despairing of the effectiveness of any true call for idealistic action? Is there truly no hope and no purpose in demanding that the constitution not be crumpled and reconfigured for the quick benefit of those who cobbled together some temporary power?

It was the first time, in fact, that I actually began to feel sorry for Mr. Basescu. There he was on TV, sitting by himself with the host, reading page after page of some document, signed by lots of people including Victor Ponta, calling for the dissolution of the DNA, the Constitutional Court, and several other institutions.

At any minute, I thought he was going to revert to the quote made famous by Bob Dole in 1996 when he was running for president against Bill Clinton and no one, not the press, not the public, not even other politicians, cared much about the fact that the Clinton campaign, as dirty as any other, accepted what appeared rather definitively to be laundered cash from foreigners – not to mention that his administration had improperly obtained confidential FBI files about individuals.

“Don’t read that stuff! Don’t watch television! You make up your mind! Don’t let them make up your mind for you!” Senator Dole, a respected war hero, implored at the time. “’Where is the outrage?’”

“Where is the outrage?” Yes, indeed, he wondered. “Where is the outrage?” The same should be asked here.

As I waited here for the protests (the ones that never came), I wondered what the reaction might have been if instead of the constitution being unraveled, the Romanian football team, for example, had traveled to Moscow only to find the Russian team had taken over the league. And they had changed a few rules. And changed a few officials. Just temporarily. To make sure they would win. I wondered then what the reaction would be. Would there be just a couple dozen people in Piata Victoriei? Would the principle of justice have been easier to grasp?

Ok, at the beginning, at least, there was a small sign of popular and spontaneous protest here. But what happened then? The politicians put on white shirts and looked to make it theirs. They didn’t realize, apparently, that staying away was in fact their best option. Or perhaps their egos did not let them. By sitting back and staying home, the grassroots protest might have blossomed further. Maybe into a movement. Maybe enough to force change. If successful, it would have in fact benefited those very same politicians – at least for now – and in politics, that’s all that really matters. But then they usurped it. And the genuine movement went away. Because the enemy of my enemy might be my friend, but don’t go so far as to give them a kiss. Especially not in public.

The USL side, of course, have made their own mistakes. Plenty of them, in fact, with no signs of stopping. If only, they too, had taken the time to search for a quote, such as: “The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.” That’s from the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who said many things that are worth remembering.

Or maybe they did read it. Maybe that’s why they were in such a hurry at first. “Tear everything up and replace everyone. After that, we promise, to put everything back.” But circumstances arose that delayed and delayed, and if not here, then throughout the world, the Ponta side was quickly proving unworthy of winning.

Because, here again, we see the principle at work. Remember, outside of Romania, the USL’s enemy did not exist. The US and Europe don’t hate Basescu. The battle here with the flash and excitement blinded no one outside. People were seeing clearly what was happening – and seeing it had to stop.

Here, at home, however, the enemy seemed real. And the USL side wasted no time. Collect your friends, broaden the assault, and attack the President. It’s so simple and easy. Especially with plenty of empty party mouthpieces like Senator Dan Sova (oops, Minister for Parliament Relations), who, after returning from his trip to the Holocaust Museum, is willing to spout whatever absurb PSD excuses he was told while reading his Blackberry on TV every night.

In the meantime, pay no attention to the continuing series of embarrassing missteps (plagiarism, fictional CVs, resignations, etc.) because it all comes out in pieces. One little thing at a time. And there are too many players. It’s a classic dodge and weave with no one to target. Not like Basescu. Remember, he is the enemy.

Now whether all this on either side was an actual strategy, or just the absence of one, it was difficult to watch, not because I favor one side or the other. I just like to see a fair fight. I like to watch a strategy play out. Unfortunately, in Romania, I’ve seen it too seldom. Whether in business or politics, everyone seems to think that everything is urgent. To be urgent is to be important. And by rushing and running, people can prove they are busy. And the busier they are, the harder they must be working. And if they work hard enough, how can it be their fault when they fail?

Why is it so hard to just stop for a moment. Maybe take a few hours. Maybe take a whole day. Sit around and think. Think and then plan. Develop a strategy. Write a full list of questions and agree on some answers. Let everyone know and then launch your attack.

But that does not happen. The mud starts flying. Everyone gets dirty. And the race is on to see who’s left standing. Then the game they play is so devilishly simple. Make the fight dramatic and lively. The more entertaining it can be, the more the public gets caught. The more telenovela it becomes, the less anyone thinks about what’s really at stake. Convince everyone that life will be good if only you win. And choose that one enemy (whether a man or a group), and then nothing you do can be wrong in that fight. (How much evil in the world has been done by temporarily tearing everything up to defeat just one scapegoat?)

And by the very end, the game is so good that everyone gets caught up in the action. Even the press, it seems, gets sucked into this fiction, incapable or unwilling to crtically assess what they are being handed by these politicians. How else to explain its fawning coverage of the “Clown of Constanta,” showing up to vote with a giggling gaggle of jiggling Gidgets. Or the mindless and tasteless Realitatea promo comparing the national impeachment of a President to a Hollywood fantasy of gladiators, pirates, aliens, wizards, and other computer-generated and exploding fantasies. The politicians themselves could not have created a more asinine portrayal.

Is that a true representation of the gravity of this situation? Is that what was at stake here? A childish and pretend fight to the death that was to end July 29 like the Sunday finale to a TV series that we watch with popcorn and wait for commercial breaks so we can go to the toilet? Apparently, that’s what the news editor at that station believes. Oh, how clever. Yes, how funny.

I don’t think it’s being necessarily boring, old-fashioned or conservative to communicate the seriousness of a topic when the topic is serious. Perhaps if the politicians would recognize the seriousness of what they are doing, then the rest of the country would too. Just one glimpse at the value of your national currency should tell you the rest of the world is taking this very seriously. Perhaps this country should too.

In the end, of course, Mr. Basescu was probably saved by several factors that I doubt he had any control over: the calendar, the weather, partisan disgust, and overall apathy. Not even an all-out assault (and who knows what else?) could get more than four out of every 10 eligible voters out to defeat him.

And repeating that feat is likely to be more difficult. That’s why other means must be found. The relentless sniping and complaining and whining of politicians on TV has a way of draining anyone’s energy. Besides, most of us, it seems, are at the beach, the mountains, or better still, watching the Olympics.

Because with those games, at least, your enemies are clear. Neither side can suddenly change the rules (just temporarily) to make sure they win. And most important of all, as any athlete knows, you don’t enter the game without a good strategy.

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