Monday, June 30, 2008

Playing not to lose?

A long-time concern of mine with respect to Dems is that, when they are ahead, they fall into a pattern of "playing not to lose" instead of "playing to win". The former strategy is appealing because it is based on the idea that, if you are ahead, all you have to do is not make mistakes and you will eventually win. The flaw in this strategy is that mistakes are inevitable. If all you have is a defensive strategy then eventually those mistakes will accumulate and your lead will quickly vanish.

(Aside: I've been a fan of the Portland Trailblazers for years. But back in the days of Clyde Drexler, this was a consistant mistake they made. They would get out ahead of their opponent, slack off, and then watch their leads wither away, never to be regained.)

A "playing to win" strategy, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to gain ground that can compensate for any you might lose because of mistakes. Yes, it can also increase the odds of mistakes, but as long as the success rate of small battles compensates for those mistakes, it doesn't really matter.

Furthermore, "playing to win" just makes you look like you are winner, and that itself can be a big boost to your campaign.

One thing I have liked about Obama is that he didn't seem to buy into the "play not to lose" strategy. At least not in the primaries. There were mistakes. But he didn't let the fear of mistakes get in the way of pushing further into Clinton territory. I am covinced that this was one of the greatest contributers to his primary victory.

Which is why it is disturbing to see a return to the old "play not to lose" strategy. First with his handling of the FISA vote and now with his handling of the kerfluffle around Wesley Clark's comments about McCain's military service (here). By quickly ejecting Clark Obama has made two mistakes: (1) he has ceded to the right the ground of defining just what it means to say that military service gives you foreign policy cred and (2) he has given weight to the old idea that, if you just push a Dem around, eventually he will apologize for getting in your way.

Not smart politics.

Not yet fatal. But certainly worrisome.


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