Playing to win or playing to beat the other guy?

Republicans are facing a dilemma: Should they field the strongest nominee possible or make the best out of what they have in the hope that dissatisfaction with Obama outweighs the lack of enthusiasm for his Republican challenger?

We see this in sports all the time: A dominant team emerges and the rest of the league reshapes their roster to try and match up. In the NBA, the Lakers had won back-to-back championships. LeBron James and Chris Bosh brought their game to South Beach to partner with Dwayne Wade. Midway through the season, everyone else realized they didn’t match up.

The Orlando Magic traded away big pieces of their roster to keep pace.

The Boston Celtics parted with one of their most beloved players, trading defense for more offense.

The New York Knicks literally gave away most of their roster to acquire a player (Carmelo Anthony) they could have gotten through free agency later on — but they wanted to make a run now.

It didn’t work for any of these teams.


Because playing to win and playing to beat the other guys are two very different things.

Orlando, Boston and New York were playing to beat the other guys, but in trying to do so lost their own identities and, ultimately, any chance at winning it all.

A few years ago, the Lakers were faced with the same dilemma: Move personnel to try to compete with someone else, or stay true to their identity and win on their own terms. They chose the latter and won back-to-back championships.

I get the sense that Republicans feel right now the way Democrats must have felt back in 2004. If they’re not careful, they may be destined to repeat the same fate: ignominious electoral defeat.

Back then, conventional wisdom suggested that John Kerry’s strength was foreign policy. Since that was going to be the dominant issue in the 2004 election, the reasoning went, Kerry would surely be the best candidate to beat Bush.

It made sense on paper, but we all know how it turned out.

Previous election cycles are filled with cautionary tales for the current GOP field.

Seven years ago, Howard Dean emerged as a fire-breathing populist, the grassroots choice. He soon flamed out. Some think Herman Cain might play that role this year, though more likely it will be someone with more resources, like Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul.

Dick Gephardt, you’ll remember, ran as the voice of experience. His campaign never quite got off the ground, much like Newt Gingrich’s. There’s always one.

Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, could very well be the John Edwards of this race. Much like Edwards in 2004, Pawlenty is new to the national scene and is trying to establish himself as the alternative to the frontrunner. Even if Pawlenty doesn’t win the nomination, he could, like Edwards, find himself in contention to be on the ticket.