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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Coaches and Parties

There's an old saying in football: "There are only two types of coaches--coaches who have been fired, and coaches who are going to be fired." Even the greats run out of steam at some point--Woody Hayes, famously, but seemingly not JoePa? Joe Gibbs certainly--the game had left him behind.

But most coaches who get fired (and I'll expand this to other sports) get fired for things beyond their control. A coach takes over a bad franchise (say, hypothetically, the Lions) and continues to lose. A coach has some success with one roster but players age, move on as free agents, and he has less success with different players. A "genius" coach designs a new system but other coaches catch up and learn to defense the system, bringing the genius back to earth.

So we can talk a lot about why a coach "deserves" to get fired (Jim Zorn? Norv Turner?), but at a certain level there is no desert. Coaches have success, often for reasons beyond their control. Coaches suffer failures, ditto. Coaches can make a difference, but my guess is that coaching is less important than other factors, most of the time.

Look at the long list of great coaches who have failed with a second (or third) team: Ditka in New Orleans, Gibbs in Washington (Part II), Spurrier with the Redskins and in South Carolina. It's the rare coach who wins and wins and wins, even after changing locale. And that coach usually, but not always, has great players when he wins in the second or third place. Note that the "genius" of New England had little success with the Browns.

I think that there's an analogy to political parties here. A political party can win an election for reasons beyond its control. A political party can lose an election for reasons beyond its control. Sure, things the parties do matter. Ideas can matter. But like coaching, party leaders have limited control over events. Ideas rarely determine the outcomes.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the efforts to reinvigorate the Republican party, either as a party of ideas or as a party that speaks to middle- and lower-class voters on bread-and-butter issues. And I have to say that I'm skeptical. Skeptical that the ideas ever mattered that much, and skeptical that ideas and/or policy positions really matter, that much.

The GOP won in 1980 because things had gone very poorly for the US of A in the years preceding the election. It wasn't like the Democrats or Carter had much to do with that. Paul Volker probably had more effect on the economy than Carter, and the policies from the Johnson and Nixon administrations left the country in a rough patch. It's unlikely Carter could have stopped the Iranian revolution, and the seizure of the hostages, well, game over for the incumbent party.

I heard Douthat on NewsHour say that Carter had failed to cope with the economic crisis yadda yadda, no mention of the hostage crisis. Boy, he's young and stoopid.

Reagan won in 1980, but if George H.W. Bush would have won the nomination in 1980, he would have won the 1980 general election.

The GOP won in the congressional elections in 1994 because Southern conservative districts finally voted the way they should have been doing for decades. It wasn't the Contract with America!

I would say something similar about 2008. Did the Republicans really lose because they had no policy agenda? Or did they lose because they were the party in power during a financial crisis, a housing crisis, etc.? I doubt that Obama's policy proposals had much affect. In a very real sense, the GOP was in the situation of the coach who has run the same system for thirty years (sound like anyone?) but suffers some key injuries and faces other teams on an up-swing. Their luck had run out.

Around the blogosphere, we like to analyze and over-analyze these things (i.e., elections). But I'm not convinced that we don't over think them.

Now, of course many of the folks talking about reinvigorating the party have a motive for doing so--they want the reinvigorated party to adopt their ideas. But I would really like to see a discussion of how much any of that really matters in winning elections.


At 5:49 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

What you leave out is the role that Bush & Co played in CREATING the various crises we face. Deregulation was a strategy, Iraq was a choice, torture was a tactic, New Orleans was an incompetent set of reactions, Gonzogate was a crime, etc.

This pattern certainly isn't true of every failed president, but it is true of THIS one. The problem with the GOP's "lack of ideas" is not the campaign, it's the governing. The Bushies were brilliant at campaigning, but they had no idea how to actually run a country. The problem with the GOP and its current attempt to revitalize their ideas is that they're still focused on the former and indifferent to the latter.

No matter how true it is that some leaders (and coaches get a raw deal, or a lucky deal, it is also inescapable that some of them just SUCK. Like the ones we've got now.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

True that, but there's no reason to think that the bad consequences will occur during the poorly governing admin.

And Katrina was something of a wild card. Contingent, not necessary. Dare I say it? Bad luck for Bush! Because no administration was ready for that. The levees were the levees. If Katrina hit in 1999 or 2000, it would have had the same effects and it would have been on Clinton.

At 12:43 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Once again, 3, how wrong you are. No one blamed Bush for Katrina, they blamed him for an incompetent response to Katrina.

Bill Clinton had turned FEMA into a model of competence and efficiency, while Bush put Horse Show Brownie in charge b/c he had been college roomies with a Bush crony. Meanwhile, Bush refused to ask any questions at his official briefing, decided he was more needed at McCain's birthday party in AZ, and then thought he could photo-op the aftermath with a fly-over. These are not accidents, they are actions. And they have consequences. Of course, his response to 9/11 was just as bad, but we didn't know him (or what he knew) well then, and we were so shocked that we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership is a skill--and a form of knowing--and humans are not interchangeable atoms. There is a real difference between the good and the bad, a difference that is sometimes lost in the fog of the moment but that looks as clear as a mountain next to a molehill once the fog clears. Buchanan-Lincoln, Hoover-FDR, Bush-Obama? We still don't know for sure on the last half of the last pair, but the others I'm pretty sure about.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

I think we're talking about two different things (and thus we're both right). You're talking about presidential leadership, and that clearly matters. I'm talking about the effect of contingent events on the political fortunes of a political party.

In a sense, presidential leadership is almost itself a contingent event. Sometimes a party has good leadership, sometimes it has bad or even non-existent leadership (i.e., rudderless periods).

I think we would agree with a majority of the American people that Bush has been an astoundingly bad leader. And with a majority of the American people that Clinton was a pretty good leader, despite his other flaws.

The Katrina in 1999 is a counter-factual, so there's no way to know. I think I'm right that the levees are the levees, and that the flooding and devastation that occurred would have happened regardless of party control of the White House. I'm sure that a competent administration responding to the tragedy would have done a better job, but politically, any response would have been insufficient from the position of the opposition party.

IOW, a major catastrophe always provides the opposition an opportunity, which in this partisan environment, it will always exploit.

Don't confuse the coach in my analogy with the president. The coach is the party. Getting fired is losing party control of government.

Presidents matter, of course. Leadership matters. Policy matters (esp. in the lives of real people). But I'm thinking about winning (and losing) elections. And much of party control is luck (contingent).

At 3:49 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Sure, some is luck. But don't overestimate it in this case. Katrina was not an isolated incident. It followed shortly after (a) Iraq had started to look to all the world like a mess and (b) Bush waged an ill-advised campaign to privatize social security. Katrina was badly handled too, but not really a "wild card." It was a narrative "hook": an event that helped galvanize long-developing public discontent with addled leadership. Everything before and after could now be read through that interpretive lens.

Plus, none of these things were strictly about Bush as "leader": each flowed from the GOP & its ideology, which had been growing increasingly arrogant and extreme over the course of roughly 30 years. Nothing symbolizes this better than the outsourcing of policy analysis to FOX News and talk radio. The GOP lost--and lost BIG--b/c it simply could not govern.

The case is different with other presidents: Carter, Reagan, and Bush I, for example. But luck (or "contingency") adds little explanatory value to what has transpired this year.


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