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The misguided guru narrative

December 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

A week ago today, I wrote this rather scathing post about the explosive droolings of a former ALP Head Office staffer, George Droutsas, regarding Labor’s recent electoral defeat in Victoria published in the Age newspaper. Strangely, this was characterised on the widely-read Vex News website as an exercise in factional finger-pointing. As I made clear to the founding editor of Vex News , the prolific and talented Andrew Landeryou, I have not played an active (or even passive) role in Vic ALP factional politics for about a decade. He accepted my word, but his website continued to link to my post as if it were primarily written with the intention to inflict damage on the internal enemies of my political allies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Once you dealt with and discarded his predictable laundry list of generic complaints about the ALP campaign, Droutsas actually makes a very specific claim about the cause of Labor’s defeat: then-Premier Brumby lost because he unwisely ignored the forthright counsel of former state secretary Stephen Newnham (we infer) in favour the sycophantic cooing of yes-men like Newnham’s replacement, Nick Reece.

I fear my perhaps-too-strongly-worded opinions about the individuals concerned clouded my most important rebuttal of Droutsas. Yes, I stand by my assertion that Newnham was only kept in the position as long as he was because of the stubborn loyalty of John Brumby himself, and that Droutsas’ suggestion that he was some kind of deeply insightful thinker and/or strategic mastermind is sickeningly laughable. That said, there is a much stronger point of dispute and it relates to the overstated importance of self-styled political consigliere figures in the first place.  Without wanting to emulate Malcolm Turnbull as a self-quoter on too many occasions, here is how I tried to convey the point:

People inside campaigns invariably overstate their contribution to the outcome, especially when they win — this comes from the very human impulse to overstate our ability to affect external events (in psychology, this is called illusion of control).  State secretaries or campaign managers don’t win elections or by-elections any more than they lose them, except at the very outer margins.  In 2006, Labor won despite Newnham; in 2010, it lost despite Reece.

This is a version of the Malcolm Gladwell argument about the nature of success in Outliers, specifically the central (and underrated) importance of being in the right place at the right time.   In electoral politics, timing couldn’t be more important, a far more reliable predictor of career success than, god forbid, talent or work ethic.

This point is made eloquently by The New Republic blogger, Jonathan Bernstein as he deconstructs the idea of triangulation, the Clinton-era strategy of appeasing political foes and compromise-at-all-costs credited with saving that Presidency.  Triangulation warning: not a real word — has come back into vogue with this week’s tax compromise but, as Bernstein brilliantly argues, the whole thing is bullshit:

Triangulation is an advertising slogan coined by Dick Morris to advertise himself — to give him as large a share of the credit for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election as possible. That’s all. Trying to find any deeper meaning in it is like trying to find the deeper meaning in “Coke Adds Life” or “Tiger in Your Tank.” Might be interesting to do it, but it’s not going to tell you much about soft drinks, gasoline, or politics.with the GOP.

Bernsten goes on to point out that this self-mythologising comes with the whole political guru territory: James “Ragin’ Cajun” Carville would be regarded as an eccentric buffoon if he had worked for Paul Tsongas (who? My point exactly) and not Bill Clinton in 1992;  Karl Rove would be stuffing direct mail letters in Houston if Bush’s drunk driving charges had come out early in the GOP primaries in 2000; and Bob Shrum, now a laughing stock for overseeing numerous failed Presidential bids, would be a global superstar if a handful of voters in Ohio had gone for John Kerry instead of W in 2004.

That is NOT to say that political consultants are pointless or that these individuals didn’t bring great gifts to the table.  Far from it.  It is merely to argue that the difference between one campaign guru and another is marginal at best, especially at the highest level.  So it goes for Newnham and Reece.  The factors that contribute to electoral success and failure are as murky as they are multitudinous.  Our instinct to make sense of complexity and create resonant narratives by personalising such things is hard to resist, but it’s worthwhile resisting if we want to gain a meaningful understanding of events.

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