Time For Republicans To Go On Offense

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In case you haven’t been paying attention, President Obama has a penchant for “trolling” Republicans. It works like this: He sets a trap (typically, this involves provoking them by doing something egregious) and they take the bait — typically by overreacting. And then he wins. This pattern helps explain his recent immigration order, and why Republicans might be tempted to fall for another government shutdown-type situation.

On one hand, part of me is rooting for someone to stand up to the president over his recent constitutional encroachments. The problem is that, though merited, such a thing would likely be ineffective, and would also come with an opportunity cost.

Having just won the Senate, rather than playing defense by continuing to react to Obama’s provocations, Republicans might do well to start playing their own game for a change.

In a football game, a desperate opponent will sometimes try to draw you off sides. And when that doesn’t work, they might trash talk you after the play — hoping to get you to lose your cool — and to get slapped with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It takes discipline for an athlete (who is caught up in the maelstrom of competition, playing an incredibly aggressive and passionate game) not to take the bait. Sadly, Republicans are too often baited into pushing back — right in front of the refs — and getting hit with a penalty that puts the game in jeopardy.

But here’s the thing. When you let someone else cause you to lose your cool, they are the puppeteer — they are controlling your behavior.

Instead of being Obama’s toy — predictably responding to whatever stimulus he throws out there — Republicans would perhaps be wise to ignore him, and simply play their game.

The trick is to put the blinders on. I recently read a good, if counterintuitive article, that argues we should avoid setting goals, and instead, focus on systems. Goals are things we cannot control. Systems are things we can control. As the author notes, “If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.”

As they take control of the Senate, Republicans should quit focusing quite so much on what they cannot control (Barack Obama’s games) and shift into a leadership paradigm, whereby they proactively focus on passing a conservative agenda — the things they can control.

As it currently stands, my guess is that Republicans spend a majority of their time thinking about (or reacting to) President Obama’s agenda and/or rhetoric. This means that the majority of the time, they are allowing him to set the agenda. Even if they are successfully fighting against one of his policies (not an improper role for them, I should add), they are still playing a road game — they are still operating on his terrain. A good rule of thumb is that if you are operating on someone else’s turf, you are losing. For six years, Obama has been living rent free inside Republican brains. Perhaps it’s time to accept that once Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell takes over, our lame duck president will be much less relevant than he used to be.

In politics, as in life, it is hard to shift into a proactive or winning psychological mentality — especially if you’ve been beaten down for a long time. But it’s vital. People who accomplish great things in life tend to focus on the important, not the urgent. They tend to be proactive, not reactive. The same goes for companies and campaigns. The goal is to figure out the four of five things that must be done, rather than the million things that could be done. Sometimes this means not responding to some things — leaving some opportunities on the table. Let me give you an example of how this might work on a local political campaign.

Let’s say you’re running for a local political office and you are overwhelmed with possible tactics. There are many things you could do on your campaign, but you don’t have enough bandwidth to do everything. So you decide there are three things you must do — and if you execute these three things, you will win: Let’s say you decide you must 1). go door-to-door to every voter you deem to be a likely voter and persuadable, 2). you need to raise $25,000 to fund radio ads and a small TV buy for the last week, and 3). you have to turn out hard-core Republicans to vote on Election Day.

You are now committed to doing these three things, and if you do these three things, you believe you will win. … Now the phone rings. Someone says people have been tearing down your hard signs on the south side of town. What do you do? Do you drop everything, get in your car, and try to fix or replace the yard signs — or do you focus on one of the three things you must do to win?

Most people would do something about the yard signs. They would feel violated. It would be emotional. It would also be the wrong decision.

This sort of strategic discipline isn’t just important in terms of time management, it’s also vital in terms of building a brand — something today’s GOP is sorely in need of. In their book, Buck Up, Suck Up … and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, James Carville and Paul Begala note something Herb Kelleher, the businessman who created Southwest Airlines, once told Begala:

I can teach you the secret to running this airline in 30 seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can. Tracey, from marketing, comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. ‘What do you say?’

You say ‘Tracey, will adding the chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.’

You’ve probably heard that in politics if you’re responding, you’re losing. There is truth to this. Now, sometimes we simply must respond to things. Sometimes we plan to focus on three things, but just before we leave to go door-to-door, our campaign headquarters literally catches on fire. Sometimes when a football play breaks down, you have to call an audible.

Plans must evolve and adapt and be flexible. By the same token, you can’t stop to kick every barking dog — you can’t allow your rivals to constantly set the agenda. You can’t get anything done by always being reactionary. As Republicans take control of the Senate, the best advice might be to quit responding to Obama, and simply play their own game.