Sunday, July 31, 2005

Making sure ex-prisoners can find employment

In theory, prisons deter people who've committed past crimes from committing more of them. The harsh reality of incarceration, the idea goes, gives them an incentive not to commit more crimes once they get back to the free world. Unfortunately, if ex-offenders can't get jobs, housing, or re-integrate into society once they are released, they're pretty likely to return to a life of crime.

CrimProf blog I found this fine article by John Rakis from the June 2005 Federal Probationer, showing how barriers to employment, in particular, contribute to recidivism. I thought his recommendations were dead on:
1. Criminal justice agencies should provide a continuum of employment-related services to offenders from admission into prison through their release into the community. ...

2. Parole agencies should measure the employment rate of persons under their supervision and report these rates on a quarterly basis. ...

3. State agencies should use the employment rates of the persons under their supervision as an indicator for measuring the performance of parole officers. ...

4. A universally accepted definition of recidivism should be adopted by state criminal justice agencies and used to benchmark the effectiveness of their efforts. The executive and legislative branches of government should set goals for the reduction of recidivism and hold agency heads accountable for achieving those objectives.
Holding parole officers and agency heads accountable for parolees' employment and recidivism rates is a great idea. The same notion could be implemented for those on probation, too. If offenders can't get a job, that's not just their problem, or their family's, but a problem for all of us because, in the end, they're likely to commit more crimes just to purchase groceries and pay rent. Ensuring that doesn't happen is as important -- maybe more so -- than making more arrests.

Meanwhile, the Austin Re-Entry Roundtable -- a collaboration of government and non-profit agencies banded together to help prisoners reintegrate into society after incarceration -- came out last month with it's own plan (pdf) for improving offenders' employment options. Most of it's still in the earliest stages, but the group intends to:
  • Survey local employers and nonprofits to recruit potential employers for felons.
  • Help offenders receive educational opportunities while incarcerated, especially GED programs.
  • Look into giving offenders limited access to the Internet, ,job fairs and other venues to look for work before they're actually released.
  • Determine feasibility of offering an in-prison work program at the Travis State Jail.
  • Research best practices to identify new ideas for boosting employment.
Other portions of their plan deal with housing, drug treatment, and other barriers to success facing offenders leaving the prison system.

What happens to ex-prisoners when they're released -- particularly whether they're able to secure a job and housing -- should be the criminal justice system's most critical concern. After all, that's where the real public safety benefit comes, in theory -- from causing offenders to change their behavior after they've finished their punishment. The system has broken down, though, and nobody's making sure these folks can find employment or even have someplace to stay. Under those circumstances, a return to crime is as predictable as the eastern sunrise.

The system would work a lot better if, following the recommendations from Federal Probationer, Texas parole officers and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were formally held accountable for their charges' employment status. Maybe in 2007 the Legislature can be convinced to adopt such a measure.

See also: Ex-offenders optimism crushed by state indifference

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Dogwood Trails brazenly pursues pretext stops

To see the ultimate example of a so-called "pretext stop", read this article from the July 29 Tyler Morning Telegraph describing tactics of the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force based in Palestine in Northeast Texas:
between about 1 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, authorities from the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force as well as officials with the sheriff's office, patrolled an area bordered by Court Drive, Loop 256, Sterne Avenue and Palestine Avenue.

"We were looking for traffic violations of people coming out of these areas, known for trafficking narcotics, and once we developed probable cause, then we'd make traffic stops," Taylor said. "Sometimes it would lead to searches of vehicles."

Officials made 20 to 25 stops, in which five people were arrested - four for alleged drug-related offenses. ...

[T]he task force and the sheriff's office directed enforcement officer, John Smith, with the K-9 "Lucky," who participated in the operation.
So, narcotics enforcement officers essentially pulled drivers over randomly for more than eight hours, not to enforce traffic laws but as an excuse to run a drug dog around the cars. This tactic is designed to net large numbers of people, but not to target criminal organizations, arrest drug dealers, or to take anyone off the street except the lowest-level, randomly identified drug users. Three of the four arrested for drug offenses were found in possession of less than a gram of controlled substance, while the fourth was busted for pot.

Those are classic pretext stops -- the supposed traffic violations were mere pretexts to mask the task force's real intent to entrap drivers in drug charges. A study authored last year (pdf, pp 10-11) on behalf of ACLU of Texas by yours truly found that up to 99% of traffic stops by drug task force officers didn't even result in a ticket. The reason is simple: traffic safety isn't why they're pulling folks over.

In case you're a naif who actually thought we still had a Fourth Amendment in this country, welcome to your reasonable expectation of privacy in the 21st century. Combined with the authoritarian logic from
Whren, the Caballes case (decided in January by the US Supreme Court) freed law enforcement to pull over drivers for minor traffic violations in order to let a drug sniffing dog check the car. That doesn't constitute a search, Justice Stevens wrote in the majority opinion. What a crock! But a crock with the force of law. So here in Palestine we see the fruits of this ill-conceived, activist court decision: 5 people are arrested, but 20 innocent ones are pulled over for no good reason -- indeed, more or less admittedly on pure pretext, brazenly skirting the outer bounds of legality and propriety.

That's the kind of slimy tactic that caused the Legislature to pass HB 1239 reining in rogue drug task forces, of which the
Dogwood Trails bunch is among the most notorious. See prior Grits coverage of Dogwood Trails' botched raids, racial profiling and their shooting of an unarmed suspect.

This summer, Texas counties must decide whether to re-apply for money under the new law or to use the money for other allowable purposes like drug treatment or probation services. Meanwhile, Texas DPS must decide this summer which areas of the state it considers priority drug enforcement areas, which will restrict where drug task forces can be re-authorized
(hmmmmm .. do you think they'll pick rural East Texas where Dogwood Trails operates, or counties on the border?). Finally, the Governor's office will announce by September 30 which of the 25 remaining Texas drug task forces (down from 46 just three years ago) will continue to receive funding.

These types of dragnet tactics fail to target criminal organizations while filing the prisons with non-violent, low-level offenders. That doesn't solve anybody's problem. Hopefully local officials, DPS, or the Governor will recognize that money spent on these liability magnets would be better used for treatment and community supervision programs that reduce drug use and crime.

Dallas jail healthcare blasted

Still catching up from my vacation, and much of the big Texas justice news seems to relate to county jails. Via David Finn, check out the recent Dallas News coverage of the healthcare system's dramatic failure at the Dallas County jail, plus the paper's editorial calling for the sheriff to scrap the city's contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch for providing inmates' healthcare.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Homegrown Harris jail jam

Why is the Harris County jail overcrowded?

Because Harris County prosecutors and judges have been using a legal loophole to incarcerate low-level drug offenders who should be receiving drug treatment. A Texas state law passed in 2003 required judges to sentence first-time, low-level drug offenders to probation and treatment instead of state jail. Harris County prosecutors, though, relied on another provision of the law to impose up to six months incarceration in the county jail as a condition of probation.

Since that 2003 law passed, according to the ACLU of Texas Prison and Jail Accountability Project, the number of state jail felons sentenced to county jail as a condition of their probation increased by 188% (Word document).

No wonder the Harris County jail is full! They're choosing to incarcerate people at their own expense who the Legislature thought should receive cheaper and more effective drug treatment options. That makes it a homegrown problem, which will now require a homegrown solution: Governor Perry recently vetoed legislation that would have closed the loophole. (See Solutions for Texas and Kuff for more. UPDATE: New Kuff post Saturday.)

Top 10 Counties by number
of State Jail Felons (6/1/05)
Source: ACLU of Texas Prison and Jail
Accountability Project


State Jail Felons Sentenced to County Jail





















Total for all 254 Texas Counties


% of Total in Harris County


For more information on the roots of Harris County Jail's overincarceration crisis, see Grits' Harris 'bail and jail' series linked here.

Taser death a "temporal" connection

Sleepless in Midland decries the death of Midland's own Eric Jay Hammock, who was Tasered until he died this spring by the Fort Worth Police Department. (The coroner said there was a "temporal," but not a conclusive connection between the mulitiple Taser shocks and the man's resulting death.) Hammock's family has sued Taser International over his death. Sleepless deplores drug use, but says it shouldn't be a death sentence so if Tasering a drug user could kill him, Taser use should be reconsidered.

Good stuff from out west. Given Hammock's disturbing story, I can see why he's sleepless!

Stronger probation: "Right idea, wrong governor ..."

In its August issue, Texas Monthly's Paul Burka says the state needed HB 2193 strengthening its probation system. The bill was vetoed last month:
"The idea was that more supervision would reduce crime and make prison beds available for violent criminals. Right idea, wrong governor: Rick Perry vetoed the bill. The Legislature should pass it again at its first opportunity..."

TPPF: Counties must act to prevent overincarceration

Now that Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed HB 2193 strengthening Texas' probation system, Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) thinks counties should enact many of the reforms on their own. Go read what he has to say.

Some of my liberal friends express discomfort with Levin and Company, not to mention religious groups like the Restorative Justice Ministries Network and the Christian Life Commission, adopting similar common-sense positions to those advocated by ACLU, LULAC, and NAACP. TPPF's chief financier is Governor Perry's (and Carole Strayhorn's)
most important financial backer -- Jim Leininger, a wealthy religious-right activist based in San Antonio.

But as the GOP gubernatorial primary battle between Leininger's two beneficiaries attests, the Republican party isn't a monolith. Putting aside momentarily matters related to redistricting and the culture wars, a wide range of opinion exists within the Texas GOP on many of the most important issues facing the state, particularly about improving the criminal justice system. Certainly, some politicians still pander to special interests like prosecutors and the police unions. Once you understand the problems Texas faces on that score, though, the best solutions pretty much become obvious, even to Republicans. After all, the GOP runs the state now, and at the end of the day, the public expects them to make everything work. That's what Levin's trying to help them do with articles like this one.

Conservatives' agreement is nothing to fear in the criminal justice arena, folks. There, the party labels don't actually mean that much, and we need all the help we can get.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Vacation reading

Just back from camping in Northern New Mexico, for the most part out of cell-phone range, much less away from Internet access. It was a bit of a culture shock, but I desperately needed the break. Kathy and I did quite a bit of hiking, but also enjoyed a good deal of down time (some of it waiting for the blisters on my soft, middle-class feet to heal after our first, over-aggressive outing). Having read little but email, blogs, bills, and stuff from and about the Texas legislative process for the last few months, I welcomed the opportunity to do some pleasure reading. Here are the books I read on vacation that others might enjoy:
Without indulging in individual reviews, I'd highly recommend all of them for the general reader, with the caveat that Schneier's excellent book takes a heady, high-concept approach that doesn't always make for light reading. Good stuff, though, every bit of it. (I won't mention, for now, two other books I disliked, so as to better savor their eventual panning.) More blogging tomorrow or maybe this weekend, after I catch up a bit. A lot's happened, I can tell already, while I'm gone that merits Grits' attention.

A couple of recent site mentions were greatly appreciated, including Beyond Fear author Bruce Schneier linking to Grits right before I left, coincidentally, since I'd already selected his book by then for my trip. Thanks to Schneier and his 2-3,000 readers who came by while I was gone. Plus Wells Dunbar at the Austin Chronicle said some nice things about the blog, too, I was pleased to discover from several sources in my overquota email box, calling Grits "A powerful and well-researched site." Cool.

Back in Austin now to find the Texas Legislature in a second (ugh!) special session. It seems unreal that just a few days ago I could see my breath in the air every morning (not here, folks, I promise you), and still harbored hopes the Lege might have left town when I returned. No such luck, though. That's a good excuse, perhaps, to stay in the air conditioning and blog. To that end, more soon.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Blogs, Jazz and Message Development

Anyone who has been around politics very long knows what it means to be "on message." Campaigns spend tens of thousands of dollars on polling to determine the precise wording of messages used, and to this day many consultants and campaign managers believe that only strict adherence to the script -- like a conductor insisting on strict interpretation of a piece of classical music by an orchestra -- can avoid the gotcha-politics-driven backlash that often comes with getting "off message," or away from the campaign's scripted arguments.

The strictest political message mavens insist that only disciplined repetition of the identical words and phrases recommended by their poll can avoid getting the campaign into trouble. Even in an era with so many more communications media, this approach still works well for small, down-ballot candidate races and for lobbying on relatively obscure issues. That's because they receive so little attention that it's entirely possible to be "on message" during the handful of times the press and the outside world is actually paying attention.

The transition to the 24-hour news cycle has changed that, though, for higher-profile candidates and for issue campaigns taking on publicly debated topics. Reporters just won't print the same quote from you tomorrow as they did yesterday: Campaigns must constantly give the media fresh, raw meat, or else they may just decide to feed on you! That means the message has to change slightly each time you deliver it, while still remaining faithful to the campaign's overarching themes and goals.

Just as orchestral interpretations of classical music parallel the classical political "message repetition" concept, the development of the super-flexible 12-bar blues form in the American South offers a useful model for cultivating political messages in the new environment. In his classic treatment,
Jazz: A People's Music (1948), Sidney Finkelstein declared that:
The folk twelve-bar blues is a perfect art form. It may seem to repeat the same musical phrases over and over again, but this is because the variety of the form is provided in the words, the poetry. ... The sung blues often attained ... a fine, if still simple, musical form. The second line would repeat the first, but the melody would change; the third line of words would be different, but the melody would end up as in the beginning. This provided a fine unity and variety, built upon an interplay of words and music.
To me, that's the perfect model for a campaign's message-delivery strategy. Polling-developed messages should be repeated, but the "melody" varies on the second repetition -- that could mean varying the messenger, the context, or otherwise giving a different look and feel to essentially the same words and phrases. The words to the third phrase, though, are entirely different, and often in blues they provide a "proof" of the previously repeated phrase (or for our purposes, the repeated, poll-tested "message"), even as, for continuity's sake, the song returns to the original melody. Take this oldie but classically structured goodie from Texas blues legend Bobby "Blue" Bland:

I don't want no woman telling me what to do.
I don't want no woman telling me what to do.
I'm full grown baby, just as grown as you.

That's a strong message, delivered forcefully. Even though the third line might not be identical to the song's overarching theme, it provides a proof or an argument to support the big theme, while simultaneously bringing the melody back to the initial phrasing. After all, if a tune only had one phrase to it, repeated over and over, who would listen?

The same is true for campaign messages. If you have nothing new to say, and no new way to say it, people won't want to hear from you a second time. Campaign messages and message delivery methods must be designed to foster these planned variations in lyric and melody. The best campaigns generate a particular rhythm they're able to maintain in their communications, both with their supporters and with paid and earned media, that builds toward a crescendo on Election day.

Blues songs themselves are actually layered with this repetitive structure. Many blues tunes use the above repetitive blues style for two verses or so, then interlay a "bridge" with a completely different melody and rhythm 2/3 through the song, only to return to the original structure at the end. It's a uniquely American art form that fits in with American sensibilities -- comfort food for the brain whose rhythms and melodies tap deeply into the public's sense of self. And what politician wouldn't want their messages delivered as powerfully as the best blues tunes?

The transition toward blogs and so-called "grass roots" media necessitates even more variation to remain competitive. The main beef by professional political consultants regarding blogs is the possibility that they may get the campaign "off message," that the blogger might phrase something or reveal some tidbit that doesn't jibe with how the campaign manager or pollster might have put it. If the campaign manager possesses what I described above as a classical music mindset, they may be especially resistant to any messages that weren't handed down straight from the top.
In smaller campaigns, that's still probably wise advice. Maybe not for long, though.

At this point, I think every politician should have a blog, even if they don't update it frequently. It humanizes the candidate and lets them communicate directly with their core consituents. Plus it creates a vehicle that will be there for the campaign to use if and when you need that particular tool. The time to start a blog is not when you need to get your message out in the next 30 minutes. Grass roots media allow campaigns (or their proxies) tremendous flexibility to get out in front of issues quickly and to respond to looming attacks within the same media cycle.

The transition to an era predominated by the fast-reaction times of grassroots media requires even more flexible communications skills than did the transition to the 24-hour news cycle. (Indeed, we're fast approaching, I fear, the 60 minute news cycle.) That transition will require a shift in approach -- one that's not been fully developed as of this writing -- toward a campaign communications form that's analogous to improvisational jazz: e.g., based on the above-described form of the 12-bar-blues cycle, but with an infinite variety of personalized riffing that makes each performance unique.

That doesn't mean campaign bloggers just "say whatever comes into your head that morning," as a close associate put it to me recently. Improvisation doesn't mean just making stuff up. Again, to quote Finkelstein:

Jazz is largely improvisation, but the division between improvisation and composition is not as drastic as believed, nor is jazz so completely different from all other world music as to exist wholly by its own invented laws. Jazz follows old and familiar patterns of music, and is new only in that it follows these patterns in terms of its own rhythms, melodies, and timbres.

Improvisation is a form of composition. Improvisation is music that is not written down, composition is music that is written down. ...

If we examine carefully what happens in jazz improvisation, we see that it is really a kind of composition. It is the height of superficiality to imagine that a hot solo emerges directly from a performer's "unconscious." People simply cannot create on a consistent level this way. A great hot solo is generally worked up from performance to performance, using the same material. If we follow the work of a jazz performer, we can trace the growth of these solos. When the player arrives at a creation that satisfies him, he remembers and repeats it. At a jam session of high quality, some solos are new and some are old, although the spirit of the occasion, the contagion of the performance, sounds fresh and new.
Such is the level of virtuosity and improvisation that will be required for campaign communications in the coming era. Just like jazz musicians, improvising campaigns aren't spinning thoughtlessly, they're reacting to notes sounded by the other players in the race -- your opponent, special interests, the media -- based on a baseline knowledge of the campaign's message and strategic approach, playing off of current events or opponent's messages in ways that, like the blues form, may momentarily stray from the base message but always return back to it. Some improvisations will be tested and discarded; others will become part of the nightly routine.

Like jazz varies depending on the artist, the quality of improvisational blogging will largely depend on the skill of the blogger. The ability to turn around high quality prose or broadcast material quickly will increasingly become an important commodity in politics, much more so than now. Blogs, podcasting, and the reduction in production costs for all grass roots media will increasingly allow many small-timers to play like the big boys, providing potential strategic advantages even in the smallest local races.

We're not there yet, but we're headed there fast. Today, only the highest profile campaigns garner enough media attention to necessitate such sophisticated tactics. But one can already see the outlines of the inevitable future as modern media accelerate toward their obsession with immediacy. (The
scoop is dead, but everybody wants to be first, anyway.) Message-makers who resist the change, especially those who stick to the repeat-it-ad-nauseum approach, will increasingly cause their campaigns to lose the message wars. Those who've learned to vary their message and rhythms to accomodate the changing environment along the line of the 12-bar blues model possess greater flexibility to operate in the new era. But in a few years, even those elite few may ultimately be forced to embrace full-blown improvisational communications tactics for their candidates or issues to survive.

The old saying is true: Speed kills. Campaigns already don't have the luxury of waiting days to respond to opposition messages and events. In the coming years, if current trends hold, hours and minutes wasted will become decisive. That's when political communications will have to wholly adopt new improvisational methods.

I've seen the future and it's filled with jazz.

See also Grits' previous item on "Blogs role in political campaigns."

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Stuff to visit

I'm a big fan of the blog Drug War Rant, which was one of my early role models when I first began blogging. But I'd never seen its author Pete Guither's photography. Way cool: Go take a look.

Meanwhile, Skippy's still a bit short in his quest for a million hits, so
click over to help him out before his third blog birthday on Wednesday. That's like 21 in blog years.

Cameras wrong response to London bombings

Homeland Security Ubermeister Michael Chertoff just told NBC's Tim Russert on Meet the Press this morning that the United States should invest in "cameras and dogs" to protect subway, rail and bus transit systems from terrorist attacks.


Surveillance cameras didn't deter the terrorist attacks in London. They didn't stop the courthouse killing spree in Atlanta. But they're prone to abuse. And at the end of they day they don't reduce crime.

Texas prisons overflowing, now what?

Okay, Governor, now what?

The SA Express News
reports today that the Texas prison system is full as of June 30. But Governor Rick Perry's veto of HB 2193, which would have strengthened Texas' probation system, ensures the prison system will exceed capacity indefinitely into the future. Recent growth in the size of Texas' prison system has been staggering, and increasingly costly:

A quarter-century ago, Texas prisons could accommodate fewer than 27,000 inmates.

Today, with room for more than 155,000 inmates, the Texas prison system is, by design, the nation's largest. California prisons house more inmates — nearly 164,000 at last count — but they were intended for half that number.

Texas prison administrators dislike exceeding 97.5 percent of their available capacity — about 151,400 inmates — for safety reasons. As of June 30, Texas prisons housed 151,553.

The next day, the state began moving 600 inmates to rented space in the Bowie and Jefferson county jails. ...

Prison building, too, is a costly endeavor. A new 2,250-bed unit with a building for administrative-segregation offenders would cost just under $200 million, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

After a prison is built, each inmate it houses costs the state more than $14,600 annually.

"The state can't afford a prison," [Houston state Senator John] Whitmire said, "and I don't think we need it for public-safety purposes."

He's right -- we don't need more prisons for public safety purposes. Governor Perry's veto, however, could make greater prison spending necessary for purely political purposes. Pandering to a few extremist prosecutors (just a handful of district attorneys, mostly from rural counties, opposed the bill), Governor Perry's decision to keep our weak probation system ensures prisons will continue to fill up.

If nothing else, proposals to strengthen probation this spring expanded the terms of debate in Texas leadership circles about what priorities should govern the criminal justice system. For the first time in my memory, prominent lawmakers now openly discuss whether society can incarcerate its way out of its problems:

[L]awmakers are looking for other ways to ease prison crowding. [House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry] Madden wondered whether there's room for change in the state's criminal code.

Each legislative session, there's a flurry of bills seeking to establish new crimes or stiffen penalties for existing ones. The state has outlawed dozens of activities in the past decade, including installing a tracking device on someone else's car, soliciting a child to join a street gang and filing a false missing-person report.

"Some of the stuff that we criminalize, maybe we shouldn't," said Madden, R-Richardson, although he is not yet targeting any specific offense.
With nearly 2,000 different activities labeled felonies on the books today in Texas, Madden's certainly right that many punishments just don't fit the crime. What an amazing turn of events, though, to have a Republican committee chairman making the arguments. It's a tribute to how egregiously broken the current system has become that conservative leaders would take such a stance. It's about time. It's also particularly gratifying to know there are Texas legislators who care more about responsibly governing the state than making politicized "tough on crime" pronouncements.

At the end of the day, responsibility for Texas' overincarceration crisis rests squarely with the Governor. In addition to vetoing stronger probation, Perry also line-item vetoed part of the money designated for leasing space from county jails. Given current trends, Texas may not have until the 80th Legislature begins in 2007 to resolve its overincarceration crisis before running out of money.

HPD crime lab shows "indifference to right and wrong"

Who doesn't enjoy indulging occasionally in a good I told you so? In testimony on behalf of ACLU of Texas in January, I told the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee:
crime lab lapses are a microcosm within a system geared toward maximizing the ease with which convictions can be obtained. Innocent people aren’t convicted because one lab technician makes an error. Innocents are convicted when the actors in the system don’t care that innocents are convicted.
So you might imagine I'm gratified, if hardly surprised, to see yesterday's Houston Chronicle editorial entitled, "Crime lab investigation reveals indifference to right and wrong throughout the criminal justice system." Hell. Yeah. Give it a read. Then check out the op ed in today's Chronicle by Innocence Project attorneys Barry Scheck and David Dow clarifying that "Falsification of evidence can only be called corruption." Damn. Straight.

You know, if the MSM regularly represented such honest assessments in its reporting on the criminal justice system, there would be no need for this blog! The Chronicle promises this is the "first of several" editorials detailing flaws in the criminal justice system, so let's hope they try to put me out of business.

I've not followed the crime lab imbroglios as close as some, though it's been clear for a while they're in full-blown crisis. In too many cases, accuracy appears to be optional. The Lege sure failed to fix the problem this spring.

Assistant chief handcuffs reluctant sex partner

A grand jury handed down a misdemeanor indictment last week against defrocked San Angelo assistant police chief Ron Dooley for allegedly handcuffing a woman who refused to have sex with him. I'm glad the DA's pursuing it -- many Texas police departments and prosecutors would sweep that kind of thing under the rug. But do you suppose a non-cop would get charged with a misdemeanor for that offense?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part VI

This is the final installment in a special Grits series on Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy. See also parts I, II, III, IV, and V.

Sun Tzu's belief that victory could be "discerned," not manufactured, further reveals itself in what he called the five stages of securing military victory: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. Master Sun, like modern political consultants, understood that the outcome of a conflict can usually be predicted beforehand, much to the chagrin of the media who treat both events with the same nuance as their Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl coverage.

Campaign strategies, like military strategies, mobilize large numbers of people, communicate with constituents, confront or bypass specific, mostly logistical or political barriers, and play on or off specific strengths or weaknesses of both one's own campaign and one's opponents. Master Sun understood that victory and defeat were the result of a variety of factors, some of which are under a general's control, but most of which are not. The factors that will influence victory and defeat, though, are knowable - much more knowable, in this writer's experience, than, say, whether weapons of mass destruction exist in Iraq.

Don't think the outcome of war is predictable? Consider President George W. Bush's ill-fated decision to disband the Iraqi army after the Iraq war. Now, read the first entry by Sun Tzu in the chapter entitled "Planning a Siege" (chapters, of course, were artificially created by the translator):
The general rule for use of the military is that it is better to keep a nation intact than to destroy it. It is better to keep an army intact than to destroy it, better to keep a division intact than to destroy it, better to keep a battalion intact than to destroy it, better to keep a unit intact than destroy it.
Had someone at the Penatgon read and followed that advice before the United States' present adventure in Iraq, the Iraqi insurgency might never have launched the horrifying wave of violence that engulfs that country at the time of this writing. The outcome of the decision to disband the army was predictable - indeed, Sun Tzu predicted it and warned against it millennia ago. As mentioned earlier, though, it requires very little effort to read and understand Sun Tzu, but an immense amount of self-discipline to implement his approach.

Similarly, the outcome of most campaigns can be discerned with relative accuracy, leaving little drama in all but a handful of so-called "horse races." Thanks to the long-term maintenance of "voter files," or databases of voter contact information, plus the advent of political polling, today's voting patterns are more easily measured than conflicts in the murky world of international relations, or even than elections in Nixon's time. With declining percentages of the public voting, professional political strategists can pretty much predict who will vote in a given election, who will populate the electorate if voter turnout is high, and who are the die-hards who will vote no matter how bad is the turnout. Campaigns know whether these people historically voted Democratic or Republican, how their precinct voted in local elections that might indicate their political leanings, their age, race and gender, and many other bits of data which, combined with polling information and sophisticated targeting methods, allow campaigns to hone narrowly in on the voters they need to win.

Polling identifies core base voters, voters who may swing toward or against one's candidate, and voters in the enemy camp. These will be subdivided by geography, age, race, gender, education level, income level, voting history, or myriad other subgroups. A good poll tests responses to numerous issues that are likely to come up in a campaign, again with results broken out with detail on opinion trends among subgroups. Opposition messages might be tested to discover which issues enthused the base, dampened enemy votes, or, the holy grail of messages, moved undecided voters.

Campaigns use polling to test prospective attacks on their opponent, along with attacks the campaign anticipates being launched against it. In other words, opposition and defensive research should occur before the campaign pays for opinion polling. A good poll will tell within reasonable certainty which attacks will damage your campaign, as well as which attacks will work best on your opponent. It will even give clues to what communications strategy - broadcast advertising, direct mail, internet campaigning, etc. - will be most effective. Ideally, one delivers attacks to the narrowest group of targeted voters possible to achieve the campaign's vote goals, while avoiding voters who are likely to backlash against the message.

Use of polling by campaigns receives perennial, unjustified criticism, tantamount to criticizing a carpenter for using a jigsaw. Polling allows a high level of sophistication in crafting and delivering messages. Campaigns operating without such a measuring tool at their disposal risk the same fate as a pilot flying into the rain without checking the weather report.

Combine oppo, defensive, and polling information with answers to a few more questions - Who has more money? Who has grassroots support? Who has more staff and superior campaign organizational structure? Whose strategists have a superior record? - and the election's outcome can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Ron Facheaux, the founder of Campaigns and Elections magazine, boasts that his service predicts outcomes of elections nationwide with nearly 99% accuracy.

Once data is gathered, the steps for planning a campaign are identical to those proscribed for Sun Tzu's generals: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. How they do that would take up an book. For present purposes, the reader need only know that opposition, defensive, and polling research all measure and assess Sun Tzu's main benchmarks: leadership, organization, the terrain or terms of debate, and the political "weather." Campaign planners assess and calculate the efficacy of various tactical options, including which attacks are most likely to succeed, or how best to defend against an expected onslaught. When planners make their measurements, assessments, calculations and comparisons correctly, they can predict the outcome with quite a bit of certainty.

One word of caution: Sun Tzu was an ancient philosopher-warrior writing in a differing culture and time. I've advocated that some of his ideas be considered metaphors for aspects of modern political conflicts in the democratic electoral arena. Certainly because it was written for a different time, and for a different purpose, not every line should be read as some biblical Truth. Technology, especially mass communications, has created issues, problems and opportunities Sun Tzu never dreamed of, though in my opinion his approach would be well suited to modern politics. What's more,I've only scratched the surface of Master Sun's approach, and indeed these comments have ignored the words of China's great commentaries by other ancient generals, which enlighten his meaning considerably. Like this chapter, Sun Tzu should be a starting point for thinking about strategy, not a definitive source of answers.

Yet The Art of War is a remarkable book, particularly if presented with the best of the ancient commentaries (as does Thomas Cleary's translation, which this writer would strongly recommend above others available). How often does ancient wisdom so ably confirm modern experience? Master Sun's deep insight into the burdens and duties of leadership allowed him to maintain dispassion and focus on his nation's real priorities where lesser men merely reacted to events. Because war is merely politics in its most extreme form, Sun Tzu's model dramatically demonstrates how, even though human society and its structures of government have changed, the requirements for good leadership differ little in ancient and modern political affairs.

What was true for the ancient warrior is true for the 21st century opposition researcher: If you know others, and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles.

Negotiating hidden cameras in the workplace

Good news for workers under surveillance:

he D.C. Circuit court upheld (pdf) a National Labor Relations Board ruling that unionized companies must collectively bargain before installing hidden cameras in the workplace. Anheuser-Busch had installed hidden cameras with a special night-vision lens to monitor its employees in an area where the company suspected drug use. Via All Deliberate Speed.

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part V

This is a special Grits series on opposition research. See Parts I, II, and III and IV.

Sun Tzu elaborated specific flaws in generals that could be exploited by their opposition. Each also applies to running modern electoral political campaigns:

There are five traits that are dangerous in generals: Those who are ready to die can be killed; those who are intent on living can be captured; those who are quick to anger can be shamed; those who are puritanical can be disgraced; those who love people can be troubled. These five things are faults in generals, disasters for military operations.
Those who are willing to die are mostly those who enter politics or run for office for selfless reasons -- to promote a particular good-government-type cause or public policy. Often they are zealous single-issue candidates or political operatives. Many of these folks, especially on the left, reflexively appear to seek electoral martyrdom. The most successful politicians, sad to say -- the ones willing to do what it takes to win and retain office -- typically operate out of personal ambition, not some do-gooder philosophy. By contrast, self-defined martyrs most often find their secret wishes for doom granted in the end, comforting themselves afterward that they "fought the good fight."

"Those who are intent on living" in campaigns prioritize their own autonomy and personal life choices over the goal of winning the election. In a heated race where campaigns have roughly equal resources, candidates and their staff must "sell out" their personal lives near-completely to gain strategic advantage. Politicians who won't spend evenings away from their families, for example, or who worry too much about avoiding campaign debt, may easily be outworked or outspent by their oppositon, all else being equal, leaving them ripe for "capture."

Obviously, those two flaws represent opposite sides of a coin. A wise commander hoping to avoid pitfalls must balance the two extremes: One must be prepared to die -- nobody should enter a campaign without understanding there's a good chance they'll lose -- but utterly unwilling to contemplate defeat until after election night.

Using your opponent's anger against them is a key, often overlooked tool enabled by high-quality opposition research. For starters, it's usually free or cheap compared to other strategies. Politicians all have huge egos - after all, by definition they think they should be running things or they would not present themselves for public office. It's easy to play on that ego, which carries with it a raft of insecurities that can be manipulated in a highly charged campaign atmosphere.

Angry people do irrational things. For that one unhappy moment, or sometimes for many, injuring one's attackers will be valued more highly than taking actions that benefit oneself. It's that brief lack of focus that gives your campaign an opening to manipulate. In the final few weeks of an election, literally every day becomes extremely important. Causing a candidate or their staff to lose focus in a close race even briefly during that critical period can mightily disrupt a year-long campaign effort. Even better, attacks sometimes cause angry people to respond disproportionately, waste valuable resources, and often draw more attention to allegations through their response than the original attack received.

Campaigns can make their opponent pretty darn angry for not a lot of money. One frequently successful tactic is to send out a piece of attack mail, or to have blockwalkers take flyers or door hangers with attack messages door to door, delivering negative messages narrowly targeted geographically to the candidate's own house and neighborhood, preferably also that of the campaign manager or chief local strategist. To really stir the pot, use volunteers to call voters in your opponent's home precinct, plus the neighborhoods of his or her key advisers. Have callers give a negative message about your opponent, then ask for whom they intend to vote (this is called "voter ID") and offer them a yard sign.

Often, for the cost of a couple hundred pieces of photocopied literature and a few volunteers' time, campaigns can convey the impression to insiders in your opponent's camp that attacks are being widely distributed, if only because the candidate's neighbor asked her about it from across the hedge. Throw in a few bon mots at public forums in earshot of the opposition, and I've seen perfectly rational, professional politicians who should know better sent entirely around the bend mistaking the cacophony we'd created for some barbarian horde pounding at their campaign's gates. Frequently the opposing campaign will spend real resources on their own mail or door hanging piece responding to the charges you've made, or even respond on television which quickly soaks up excess resources, all the while prolonging the debate and public attention on the negative message.

A corollary tactic to making your opponent angry: tire them with swiftness and surprise attacks. You don't want to make the opposing campaign angry then have them wise up and adopt smarter tactics. Keep your opponent disoriented and unfocused, reeling from attack after attack, but always responding to last week's message, even as this week's message guts them like a fish. Every campaign wants to set the terms of debate in its own election - to have its messages define themselves, their opponent, and how voters view the critical issues. Thus, whenever you can cause the opposition to respond to your attacks, they will have less time, money and resources to spend putting out their own message and defining issues to their benefit. Thus, a strategy utilizing many different attacks, targeting numerous different issues, constituencies, and geographical areas can have the effect of forcing your opponent to constantly react to your campaign instead of focusing on their own priorities.

Other times, that strategy wouldn't work - say, if your campaign doesn't have the money to spend behind multiple negative messages, or when little is known about a challenger with no public record, so there aren't many attacks available. For Sun Tzu as for 21st century campaigners, attack tactics are unique to a given situation, as evaluated in the strategic assessments.

Examples of politicians combating arrogance with humility abound - one need look no further than our then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in the fall 2000 presidential debates promising that if elected American foreign policy would be "humbler." In retrospect, the nation and the world have learned what Texans already knew - that Karl Rove and Mark McKinnon's ability to make George Bush appear humbler than anybody, even Al Gore, ranked as one of the greatest-ever feats of public relations, a tribute to the skill of these modern manipulators of message and their understanding of the ever-changing-yet-somehow-still-the-same communications media. That accomplishment alone should once and for all catapult those Texas consultants into the historic stratosphere of US campaign image makers.

Finally, today as millenia ago, "those who love people may be troubled." This may not sound like a character flaw to the average person, but for political leaders it represents a vulnerability that may be exploited. How many candidates have you heard bow out of a nasty race to avoid putting their family through the unhappy event? How many legion more never enter politics for the same reason? More often than not, selfish people make the most successful politicians because they're willing to elevate their ambition over their own happiness and the welfare of those around them. For others who aren't sufficiently self-centered, though, or, to put a kinder face on it, for those who are not extremely goal-focused, once an opponent turns up the heat they'll frequently retreat from the kitchen.

See Part VI.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part IV

This is a special Grits series on opposition research. See Parts I, II, and III.
Once campaigns perform a strategic assessment, they may begin analyzing which tactics will support their objectives. Again, Sun Tzu hit many of the high points:
  • Draw them in with the prospect of gain, then take them by confusion.
  • Use anger to throw them into disarray and to muddy their focus.
  • Use humility to make them haughty, then capitalize on their arrogance.
  • Tire them by flight using swiftness and surprise attacks.
  • Where alliances array against you, cause division among them.
  • Attack when they are unprepared.
Each of these tactics applies as much to a modern political campaign as to the ancient battlefield, because they have more to do with politics and human psychology than with engaging in physical fighting. The means and methods of war have changed enormously over the years, but politics and human nature pretty much stay the same wherever you look.

Some of these strategies assume a lack of able leadership or organizational discipline on the part of one's opponent. Often, that's the case. As will be discussed at length later, responding correctly to such attacks requires a commitment to message discipline and a focus on the campaign's real priorities - those that lead to victory - not the emotional reactions of the candidate or inexperienced staffers.

It's not that you never respond: "you can't win a fistfight without throwing punches," a consultant mentor of mine says frequently. But judging when and how to respond, Sun Tzu recognized, is a decision driven more through one's situational judgments, indeed one might say through one's artistic sensibilities, than any hard and fast rule. Through knowledge of "The Way," through maintaining a vision of the path to your desired outcome and applying keen judgment regarding which tactics advance or hinder that cause, a campaign strategist, like a general, makes judgments in the field that, at best, are no better than the least reliable piece of information they are based upon.

The idea of drawing an opponent with the prospect of gain, then attacking them while exposed, for example, works as well for the oppo researcher as for the ancient general. A good campaign researcher can identify, sometimes with the help of polling data, which issues are advantageous for their candidate that are damaging to their opponent. A classic example is a Republican candidate baiting a Democrat to run on left of center issues, anxious for the opportunity to label their opponent liberal, while Democrats similarly bait Republicans on issues like reproductive choice and race. The key is to convince one's opponent to stick out their neck on the issue, to draw them out on the subject so they can then be attacked for it.

It's easy to see why. The best attack will anticipate where an opponent's message is headed, then play off it, nullify it, while simultaneously transforming it into the equivalent of a floodlight on a theater stage, illuminating some particularly flattering element of your own candidate's character or record. Matching negative attacks to complement one's own primary, positive message represents the height of opposition artistry. I've heard the tactic called rhetorical judo - using your opponent's own message, their own momentum, against them like the judo wrestler flips an assailant. As in martial arts, a campaign's blows land harder when an opponent walks into them. Opposition researchers are counterpunchers. Momentum can shift with a single strike, and even weak campaigns with a good researcher retain a puncher's chance of winning until the end.

To get full benefit from such rhetorical judo, it's best to attack your opponent's core message. Doing so both undermines their strategic base and also requires fewer resources to promote your message. An attack based on some obscure, tangential vote no one's heard of, by comparison, can be expensive to put into play because a campaign must pay to educate the public about the issue, what your opponent did on it and why it's bad, and what your candidate would do differently. More cost-effective is to cajole or force an opponent to spend communications money on rhetorical or ideological terrain that benefits your own campaign. Then both camps play into your message themes, instead of just one. The other side faces only two options: it can keep the same message and continue to bleed, or change their primary communications strategy. That's a problem because, a) commercials are expensive to produce, even more so if they contain new messages, and b) campaigns spending money behind a message in any medium have committed significant resources behind a message that must now be abandoned. Since the public pays little attention to down ballot campaigns, one gets only a handful of opportunities to convey messages to the voters, and each time the message changes one risks the voters won't hear the new one.

Bottom line: Whenever a campaign has to pull media to change their message in response to attacks, it's a sign they're momentarily losing the message wars. For small districts, TV advertising may simply be cost-prohibitive analyzed on a cost-per-voter-contact basis, and many campaigns budget only for one TV ad at most. Though expenses for shooting and editing TV-quality video are declining, they're still beyond the means of most small campaigns, and for many the production and airing of a single commercial stretches available resources mightily. If campaigns must pay for multiple commercials responding to their opposition, then their opponents have imposed significant additional expenses that usually aren't anticipated in a campaign plan for any but the biggest races.

The strategy of causing the other side to change their message applies even to campaigns without TV. When I'm hired by a smaller campaign, if the other side has already produced their first campaign literature - perhaps they've sent out direct mail or started handing out "push cards" - I identify the main message components that my candidate would dispute, or which open the opponent up to a strategic attack. Frequently I'll propose an attack strategy designed to get the opposition to "change their push card," or to alter their campaign's core message in response to our initial attacks. At a minimum, this strategy causes your opposition to spend additional money re-creating literature each time you do it. That becomes expensive. Done correctly, it also shifts the message emphasis to issue areas you chose instead of them. In that way, opposition messages can define and alter the terms of debate in a given race.

Causing division among alliances - in other words, divide and conquer -- as a strategy needs little adumbration. But for the campaign researcher, if the campaign makes dividing alliances one of its goals, this choice of strategy obligates the researcher to find information not just about the opposing candidate but about the various ideologies, interests and personalities to which they're politically connected.

To create these divisions, a researcher looks for "wedge" attacks that split off one or more constituencies who would otherwise be disposed to support your opponent. Absent meaningful checks by the media, an opposing campaign can only respond in one of two ways: 1) spend campaign resources to defend themselves with a group they previously considered their base, in which case you've temporarily seized control of the terms of debate, or 2) stay on message and allow the bleeding to continue, in which case, if your attack is working, you'll be siphoning off votes. That causes double the damage because your opponent loses votes while the good guys (and don't we all think of ourselves as the good guys?) rack up new bases of support. Each negative attack must have not only documentation, but its own delivery vehicle. One can't rely on media coverage - they don't adequately cover any but the very highest-level elections - so quite frequently that means using some sort of paid media to communicate your message to the voters.

"Attack them when they are unprepared" relates closely to the advice, "take them by confusion." In both instances, for the campaign researcher, the strategy implies going negative early, before the race is typecast in the minds of the voters. Frequently campaigns are wise to attack certain opponents early on, when it might inhibit their fundraising or delay full mobilization by a critical few weeks. Often in a multi-candidate field, campaigns choose to attack the person who has the best credentials or an independent voter base that would be strong in a low-turnout election. Negative campaigning is frequently used early on in multi-candidate fields to knock out the candidate one would least prefer to run against.

Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign offers perhaps the classic example of that strategy, and certainly the most egregious in American history. This tactic was, in fact, the essence of the Watergate scandal. The egregious fact wasn't that Nixon's oppo men broke into the Watergate doing oppo research on the Democratic National Committee and their candidate George McGovern. What made Watergate particularly creepy, and doubly criminal, is that Nixon had already successfully sabotaged Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie's campaign in the primary, literally reducing the man to tears, then trashed the other candidates until, in the end, the Nixon camp literally chose which Democrat he wanted to run against. Nixon preferred to face Mc Govern, whom he knew he could paint as a radical in the general election. And so it was.

Nixon's bag of dirty tricks today seems far out of bounds to the oppo researcher. Nixon's oppo men hired agents to infiltrate Democratic headquarters as spies. They stole and fabricated documents, dug through their target's garbage, and bugged phones without warrants, probable cause, or legal authority. They spread knowingly slanderous stories accusing Democratic candidates of adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, and consorting with prostitutes. At their worst, Nixon operatives actually hired a woman to run outside of Muskie's hotel room naked shouting "I love Muskie!"

By contrast, today's oppo researchers are a geeky lot. Most of us have more in common with nerdy stock analysts who spend their days in front of a computer than some character from a Tom Clancy novel, which surely is how Nixon's men seem in comparison. Despite the stereotype of lying politicians - an image better-earned in the legislative process than on the campaign trail - outright false attacks today are a rarity and are usually the result of a mistake. I wouldn't dare put out negative attacks that aren't solidly backed up by evidence. In fact, it's certain any attacks will be scrutinized far more critically than any journalist's work product, if only by the opposing campaign. There can be no half-assed claims when you attack an opponent in public - your boss, the candidate, will be called to account for any errors. Every criticism must be impeccably documented, or the attack is too weak to spend money behind.

Still, even if tactics have moderated as the field of opposition research has professionalized, the strategic principles behind which candidate to attack are the same.

See Part V.

DEA snitch data lost

This just-noticed June 7 Newsweek headline piqued my nascent interest in snitches:

"Missing: A Laptop of DEA Informants"

Apparently in May, an auditor from the Office of Inspector General either had a laptop with up to 100 confidential informants' information stolen from his car, or else he destroyed the laptop containing the data. He told investigators both tales at different times.

According to Newsweek, "it included more than 4,000 pages of case-file data, including enough details about the informants' work that it could allow drug traffickers to figure out who they are." The OIG was auditing Drug Enforement Agency payments to confidential informants when the data went missing.


Thursday, July 07, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part III

This is a special Grits series on opposition research. See Parts I and II.

Campaigns that use both an oppo researcher and a pollster can utilize the full range of research tools available to modern campaigns, but in a heated race, opinion polls cannot replace an opposition researcher.

A poll is a measurement-based, not an intuitive instrument. It cannot synthesize material, nor make strategic judgments. It can't follow a lead. That said, if many campaigns today rely too heavily on polling instead of paying human beings to research issues, it must be at least in part because too few opposition researchers understand that their task has an artistic, not just a perfunctory, component.

The world of politics is dynamic, and one's approach to campaign research and its uses must be flexible, always situation-specific, like a sculptor working with found objects. Adaptation, to use Sun Tzu's phrase, ideally focuses a researcher's artistry on the needs of each specific campaign. Cookie-cutter research packages that apply the same approaches and often the same slogans to campaign after campaign don't just make the public cynical, they make political operative cynical as well. Good campaign researchers make sure their research fits in with, supplements, and provides new opportunities for the overall campaign plan.

Sun Tzu urged generals to examine five areas regarding the conflict, comparing their own circumstances, honestly analyzed, to their opponents, and to produce a "strategic assessment" before identifying one's strategy. An oppo researcher studies essentially the same subjects. They are: "The Way," the weather, the terrain, leadership, and discipline. By examining these factors (or their modern-day equivalents), "victory can be discerned, but not manufactured." The same is true of political campaigns, and the fundamental job of an opposition researcher is to generate information that informs victorious strategies.

"The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership," said Sun Tzu. The Way identifies forces of ideology, interest, and institutional inertia, and uses them to assist in achieving one's goals. In a modern context, the opposition researcher should think of "The Way" as a campaign's strategic message, both positive, negative and how they fit together with the campaign's organization and communications strategy. Those are the tools campaigns use to induce the public to have the same aim as the candidate.

The weather can be a factor in elections - ask anyone who lost an election because late afternoon showers dampened after-work voting. But the opposition researcher might also consider the weather in Sun Tzu analogous to two factors: the vicissitudes of current events and public opinion, both of which in some seasons simply storm at the wrong time, for reasons beyond anyone's control. In most campaigns of any size, some of these storm clouds can be forecast by opinion polling, while other events can be anticipated only with timely information, combined with the experience and intuition. In either case, folksinger Bob Dylan was right: You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You need an opposition researcher, and a good pollster.

"The terrain is to be assessed in terms of distance, difficulty or ease of travel, dimension, or safety," wrote Master Sun. But terrain may also be thought of in terms of the mass communications field - as the terms of debate, the rhetorical terrain defined by ideologies and interests that constrain how various issues are discussed. When Sun Tzu urges generals to seize the high ground, or to charge narrow gaps in a pass if they're undefended, the same advice applies handily to those charged with a campaign's message and rhetoric. The best opposition messages are framed to acquire rhetorical high ground for one's candidate in direct contrast to an opponent's particular weakness.

Assessments of difficulty and ease of travel still apply in larger districts - some Texas state senate districts now stretch hundreds of miles. But the modern campaign equivalent of Sun Tzu's concerns are communications costs - if direct mail costs $.60 per piece, while paid door-to-door canvassing costs $2 per household hit but is more effective, which strategy should you choose? How expensive will it be to deliver a negative attack, and will it influence enough people to win? Are there enough like-minded donors willing to finance the campaign plan that's needed? These are parts of the political terrain in which we all operate.

"Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness," Sun Tzu said. Nothing about that sentence has changed in the intervening millennia, and the qualities of people chosen as strategist, campaign manager, communications specialists or other positions quite often makes or breaks campaigns. But knowing the leadership in a political campaign also means knowing everything that's possible to know about the candidates, or, in an issue campaign, the people and interest groups on various sides of an issue. Discovering all this is the job of the opposition researcher, just as in the world of foreign affairs, spies and diplomats provide (sometimes faulty) information to modern generals and civilian leaders.

Finally, "discipline means organization, chain of command, and logistics," combined with a clear system of rewards and punishments. All these are important in campaigns, but today we must add message discipline to that list. Message discipline is important for delivering attacks, but even more important for responding to them. Sometimes not attacking when you want to, especially when you or your candidate are angry, requires the most discipline of all.

To summarize: Ideology and interest create the terrain in which modern mass communications operate, just as the location of deserts, rivers, hills and valleys dictate military strategies, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or ancient China. Meanwhile, events and public opinion, like the weather, wash across that terrain over time, creating erosion that can undermine one's base even on high ground, while the eroding silt creates islands where once raged an impassable stream. The qualities of leadership and discipline are forever in short supply, and should be valued as highly today as in Sun Tzu's time. But most important of all these is identifying "the Way," that is, the combination of message, strategy and tactics that allows a campaign to navigate the terrain, account for the weather, manage the strengths and weakness of both its leaders and its troops, and retain the support of the people to succeed.

By analyzing these factors, Sun Tzu said, victory can be discerned but not manufactured. "The one who figures on victory at headquarters even before doing battle is the one who has the most strategic factors on his side," he wrote. "The one who figures on inability to prevail at headquarters before doing battle is the one who has the least strategic factors on his side. The one with many strategic factors in his favor wins, the one with few strategic factors in his favor loses - how much more so for one with no strategic factors in his favor. Observing the matter in this way, I can see who will win and who will lose."

Know your opponents and know yourself. That's opposition and defensive research in a nutshell.

See Part IV.