Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Playing to win

In all this wall to wall coverage of Ronald Reagan's death, one clear message is coming through: he might not have known what was going on most of the time, but boy was he lovable. I saw a replay of a speech he gave, and I have to admit that it makes me downright nostalgic to have a president who can actually string an entire sentence together and deliver it without sounding like he's a second grader being put on the spot by his teacher.

I have always felt that there are two divergent elements to politics: there is the "passing good policies" aspect, and there is an aspect that is more like a game. The game is getting elected, and our political system is set up so that the winner of the game gets to run the country.

So these skills are connected to each other, but only in the sense that one is a prerequisite of the other. Other than that, there is a little overlap between the two skills, but not as much as we'd like there to be. Someone can be the greatest policy maker in the world, but they'll never get a chance to prove it if they run a boring campaign.

I have gradually become convinced that the far right wing have become incredibly skilled at playing the election game. About thirty years ago, they realized they were starting to lose the hearts and minds of the people, and they threw all their energy and money into figuring out the best way to play the game. And by and large, they've done it, while Democrats have been doing a crappy job of playing.

Whatever you think of Republican policies, you have to admit that they've done a masterful job of making a lot of people THINK that they can do a good job. This is what playing the game is all about. And it's time the other side realized that having good ideas and intelligent policies isn't enough. As distasteful as it is, they have to be prepared to play the game and win, against an opponent who plays the game as a full time profession.

I wish that everyone would read and understand this article, entitled "Playing to Win". It is about playing games competitively, which I understand may not fascinate everyone as much as me, but it is really friggin brilliant.

For those of you who don't want to read about video games, I'll sum it up:

There is no such thing as a "cheap" victory. A win is a win, as long as you play within the rules of the game. People who play competitive games and get beaten over and over again by the same tactic often complain that their opponent is being "cheap" because his strategy never changes. What they don't realize is that the opponent isn't being cheap; he's being smart. His play never changes because THEIR play never changes, and his play works.

Players who complain about cheapness -- whom the article refers to as "scrubs" -- claim that the game is better or "more fun" if you try different tactics every time. But ruthless and/or smart players, who only care about winning the game, exploit this attitude because those who play only "for fun" play badly.

If your opponent is really a one-trick pony, you should be able to beat him easily. I mean, if you're playing rock-paper-scissors, and your opponent's strategy is to choose scissors every time, then you know what to do. You choose rock. Every time. Until your opponent wises up. You do not choose paper occasionally because it's "more fun" or "more fair." You do the thing that beats your opponent.

The Democrats lost in 2000, in large part because the Republicans know how to game the system. But the fact of the matter is, the Republicans won, and they did so without getting arrested; hence it was legal within the rules of the game. Some of the tactics they used seemed sneaky, unfair or "cheap". These tactics may have included, but are not limited to:

* Purging law-abiding voters from the rolls as felons.
* The use of media demagoguery persuade people to vote for things that aren't in their best interests.
* Stopping the recount.
* Using an arguably stacked Supreme Court.
* Getting groups of "protestors" bussed in to stop the recount in progress.

Future tactics may include all that, plus:

* Using rigged computerized voting machines.
* Redistricting key states in order to smoosh largely Democratic districts into largely Republican districts.

Assuming that these points are even true, many of them not only seem unfair, but OUGHT to be illegal. However, they're either not currently illegal, or they are technically illegal but our justice system isn't interested in going after them. But here's the hell of it: the more they win, the more they get to change or bend the rules in their favor. And that's not fair! It's cheap! But it's the way they play the game, and they're winning because we keep on playing nice.

Democrats don't have a problem with idealism; they have a problem with winning the game. The first step that needs to be taken is recognizing they have a problem. The problem is that they NEED TO WIN. Part of winning, in the changed landscape of this game, is that people respond to stuff like patriotism and war veterans and the image of being "strong on defense." These issues are mostly very low priorities for me, but they matter in winning over the electorate. The fact is that John Kerry is actually generally on the right side of issues that I do care about, such the rights of private citizens, the lack of interest in gigantic tax cuts only for the super-rich, and separation of church and state.

Does John Kerry "inspire" me? Is he my perfect candidate? No. I actually think Al Gore would have made better policies. I voted for Howard Dean in the primaries. As far as I know, I might even like president Ralph Nader more than I'd like president Kerry -- but I can't definitely say that, because I haven't paid that much attention to Nader's platform. The fact is, Nader won't be president. Nader pisses some people off because everyone knows that no matter how good his ideas may be, he's willingly altering the rules of the game to swing it in favor of Bush. It sucks that our political system is like that, but the only way to change our political system is to first WIN THE DAMN GAME.

Having said that, I do not believe that it's a waste of time to complain about the injustices of the 2000 election. The fact is, complaining is a legitimate game strategy. If you complain about something loudly enough, and convince enough people, those people will put pressure on those currently holding office; and they, in turn, may feel that they have to do something about it in order to make their jobs more secure.

But the bitching has to be constructive. It can't be just a smug little assertion that "Well, Gore really won that election, Bush is not my president." It has to be used as one weapon in an arsenal of strategies for playing the game better next time.

So am I saying that Democrats must become as ruthless and underhanded as Republicans? No. I don't believe that's necessary. I believe that the Democrats are capable of becoming just as skillful game players as the Republicans, and still retaining the core of what they stand for. I think the skill of governing and the skill of winning are totally separate from each other. The Democrats need to learn to use populism and mass media, they need to block every attempt the Republicans make to cheat or game the system... AND they need to hold on to a set of core beliefs that would lead to intelligent and successful government.

But for now, I think their crucial weakness is in the former, and they need to concentrate real hard on correcting that weakness by November.

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