Thursday, July 07, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part I

See also Sun Tzu and the Art of Opposition Research, Parts Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six.

Criminal justice reform represents my political activism and my passion, but for the last 12 years I've also worked as a professional political consultant, performing opposition research in more than five dozen electoral political campaigns, all in Texas.

Opposition research is one of the least understood aspects of political campaigning. In recent years, I've worked fewer campaigns (just two in last November's election cycle), finding myself promoting issues more often than just candidates' ambition. Still, I've got a great deal of experience, at this point, "digging dirt," as the ill-fitting euphemism would have it. Oppostion research is a great deal more than that: It provides the meat to a campaign's message and rapid response in heated debate. Done right (and early) it provides, along with polling, the critical information campaign planners need to decide on all message and strategy.

I've got quite a bit of prose on my computer written as drafts of a possible how-to manual or book on the subject of performing opposition research that I began last summer, but got busy as election season and the Legislature approached and never finished it. I've decided to polish up that material and roll it out on the blog a little at a time as a special Grits series on opposition research.

The first few installments won't go into methods and sources, though I'll get there soon enough, but instead use Sun Tzu's The Art of War to show how oppo research is used as part of a campaign's strategy. Here's Part One of the series:

"So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

With those words, thousands of years before the advent of electoral democracy, much less television, the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu described precisely the twin, Socratic needs filled by an opposition researcher in 21st century democratic politics! Know thyself. Know your opponent.

A Texas Democratic political consultant named Mark Yznaga, an avid player of the table game "Go," turned me on to
The Art of War during my first-ever political campaign. Mark taught me to relish the artistry of the attack, even those by which our own candidates were occasionally victimized, and that defensive research mattered just much to the outcome of the campaign as oppo work. He also taught me that reading and understanding Sun Tzu's philosophy isn't hard at all - maintaining the personal and organizational discipline to follow his precepts at crunch time is the difficult part. But Mark was always better at that than I.

Sun Tzu clearly understood the role oppo research plays in human conflict. With the words italicized above he summed up the sole reason loathed creatures like campaign researchers can find regular work: To win. The leadership of political campaigns in that regard differ little from the leaders of armies, corporations, or any other participants in large-scale conflicts between competing interests. They must understand their opponents' strengths and weaknesses, their objectives, resources, strategies, and likely tactics, while at the same time, and much less comfortably, honestly and accurately assessing their own strengths, weaknesses, and relative position in the world

When charged with planning a new campaign, whether for an issue or for a candidate, I often literally re-read
The Art of War in its entirety, taking notes as I go regarding how it relates to the specific task. I use it as a launching point for brainstorming about what messages and strategies his philosophy implies in a particular case. Heaven knows I can't always muster the discipline to follow them, but more often than not, these pragmatic Taoist strategies and tactics serve campaigns well. Their application transforms the role of oppo research from the application of easily learned dirt-digging skills into a more subtle and intricate art of political communications.

Like going to war, going negative in a political campaign involves potentially heavy costs, both in treasure and in less-easily-replaced public esteem. A wise commander mixes in less costly tactics, much the way poker players bluff occasionally to keep their opponents off-guard. That's in part because a real, full-blown negative campaign, where both sides spend money on paid negative communications, represents the most expensive, most difficult worst-case scenario, the equivalent of all-out war, which Sun Tzu taught to avoid. Particularly difficult for opposition researchers, who after all fancy ourselves as attack specialists, is resigning oneself to the idea that winning without fighting, or without going negative, should sometimes be preferred as an outcome.

"Those who win every battle are not really skillful," Master Sun sagely opined - instead, "those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are the best of all." "Therefore one who is good at martial arts overcomes others' forces without battle, conquers others' cities without siege, destroys others' nations without taking a long time." By that standard, the most skillful political tacticians are not working for the most heated campaigns. Instead, perhaps they hail from the legion of politicians who run unopposed in both the primary and general election cycles.

See Part II

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