Ronald Reagan has sometimes been referred to “The Great Delegator.” He had some big priorities he wanted to stay on top of (such as defeating the Soviets), but generally, he surrounded himself with capable and competent people who were empowered to implement his goals and visions. Everyone working for him, after all, knew what he believed.
This got Reagan in hot water during his second term, after many of his best loyalists had departed (think the Iran-Contra affair), but delegating responsibility also helped make The Gipper a very successful president. Jimmy Carter, by contrast, was a micromanager (legend has it Carter would “personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court.”)
Reagan, it is theorized, understood this by virtue of his past career as an actor. In that capacity, his role was to memorize the script, deliver the lines in compelling fashion, and look good. But he had to trust others to take care of details like writing the script, getting the lighting right, promoting the film, etc.
Unlike Reagan, few politicians are effective delegators. And, in some cases, there are good reasons for this. In small races, it’s often impossible to hire someone as competent or qualified as the candidate. Left with no other option, a local candidate will run the campaign himself, leading him to believe that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The trouble is, at some point you get to a point of diminishing returns. And then, at some point (and in some states, this might not happen until you run for president!), the model utterly collapses on you.
This is a problem that has been around as long as there have been candidates and campaign managers. In Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” we are treated to this revelation about Bob Dole’s 1988 bid: “You know,” Dole used to say, “I came to Congress, I answered every letter, answered it by hand. I was my own AA, my own Press Secretary, my own Advance man, my own office manager, my own political adviser. Funny thing: we kept winning.”
Until he didn’t.
In other occasions, candidates for local office are bilked by bad political advisers and consultants, and vow never to trust anyone else again. “After all,” they reason, “it’s my name on the ballot. I should be in charge of everything in the campaign.” It takes a lot of faith in someone to give them control over your political campaign, and someone who has been burned by this experience once is unlikely to every trust again.
… So why this trip down memory lane? Consider this from National Review’s Eliana Johnson about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:
“He’s his own chief strategist, he’s his own speechwriter, he’s his own PR person,” says a Wisconsinite who has known the governor since his days as a county executive. “That may work when you’re a county executive. It’s a little more problematic when you’re the governor of a state, but you absolutely can’t do that when you’re running for president.” The Washington Post once called Walker a “hands-on tactician fixated on his public image” who “operated as the county executive, chief of staff, press secretary and campaign strategist all at once.”
This jibes with what I’ve heard about Walker, for years now. And frankly, when you consider that — after getting off to a fast start — the rough couple of weeks Walker has endured, you wonder if maybe he might have hit this same ceiling so many micromanagers before him have hit.
This is not to say that micromanagers never win; they sometimes do. But while I certainly understand the temptation to essentially run one’s own campaign (I say “essentially” because there is always someone given the de facto title of campaign manager), there are lots of reasons why this is a very, very, bad idea. Where to begin?
One of the problems with being your own chief strategist is that you cannot act dispassionately. Political attacks are, by definition, personal to you (if only Sonny Corleone had checked in with a wartime consigliere!).
It’s also horrible time management. In a campaign, time is the most important commodity, because a). time can be used to replenish other commodities (for example, to raise money), and b). time is the only commodity that, once expired, cannot be replenished.
And there are some things that only a candidate can do. This includes things like interviews and speeches, but it also includes boning up on the issues and making high-dollar fundraising “asks” of rich donors who expect to personally hear from the candidate. (And don’t downplay the importance of a candidate getting enough rest and family time to be fresh; campaigns are grueling.)
Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage implies, then, that the candidate ought to spend his or her time doing those things that only a candidate can do — meaning that other things (assembling yard signs, writing press releases, etc.) should be delegated. Even if Scott Walker were the best press release writer in the world (and I doubt that), he would presumably be further ahead by having an inferior writer do that so that he can then focus on the things that only he can do.
But candidates who have been trained to micromanage — who have had the habit reinforced by virtue of past success, and have, thus, learned the wrong lessons, have a hard time giving up control. This is not only unwise, it also betrays a sort of arrogance. As Barack Obama bragged in 2008: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
How nice. And stupid.
There’s an old saying that says the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. The same could be said about a candidate and his chief strategist.
Note: Matt Lewis’ wife formerly consulted for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC.