What General Giap Can Teach Republicans About Winning in November
The wily old Vietnamese general knows something about beating superior forces.
May 31, 2010 - 12:00 am
Here’s an unconventional tip for the GOP. Learn some valuable lessons from Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap about how to win political campaigns via the lessons of war.
But from a communist and an old enemy, you say? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. To put a stop to the madness of Obama, the GOP needs to gobble up as many congressional seats as possible this November. House Minority Leader John Boehner said recently that there are possibly one hundred seats in play in Congress’ lower chamber. Not all are top-tier opportunities for Republicans. Many are marginally good opportunities against well-entrenched incumbent Democrats. Whatever the GOP can learn and employ to give its second-tier challengers a fighting chance is worth examining.
So let’s give Giap a chance to help conservatives and Republicans reclaim a fuller measure of American liberty.
Giap and the Communists were underdogs not once but twice, first against the French and then against the United States. The wily old general knows something about beating superior forces. Giap’s lessons, properly adapted, may prove a boon to Republicans.
An avid student of Sun Tzu, Giap would undoubtedly first counsel Republican challengers to:
[K]now your enemies and know yourself, [so] you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Translated to politics, that means that GOP challengers need to make frank assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their Democratic opponents, and plan scrupulously based on those facts. That extends to the election environment — national and local — in which campaigns are taking place. And that would also mean avoiding one big complacency-inducing assumption: weaker Republican challengers need only wait for a November electoral wave to sweep them into office.
However favorable the election environment is for the GOP, understand that wave elections rarely happen, they can’t be predicted, and they can’t be planned for. Republican challengers who are banking on an electoral tsunami to wash them onto the beach across the finish line may find themselves thrashing in the surf when all the votes are counted.
Challengers are typically underfunded — or incumbents will almost always out-fundraise and outspend challengers. No candidate wants this, but that’s the reality in most challenger contests.
But here’s what Giap says about winning a war:
We know it’s the human factor, and not material resources, which decide the outcome of war.
For political campaigns, that means GOP challengers need to bring passion, an unflagging commitment to victory, and compelling messaging to recruit supporters, attract money, and win over voters. Campaign underdogs win when the people are engaged and motivated. A challenger with a stronger, thorough network of support can defeat an incumbent despite the incumbent’s superior resources.
Tactically in Vietnam, when engaging American forces, who possessed superior firepower, it was important to get close to them and grab them by the belt. Doing so would neutralize the Americans’ big guns and air cover, Giap argued. (Okay, that tactic had mixed results, at best, for Giap. See the battle in the la Drang Valley at LZ X-Ray — but it has good application in political campaigns.)
Countering Democratic incumbents’ money advantages can be accomplished through labor-intensive grassroots organization and by identifying and pouring into those niches that comprise modern communities. Many niches may either be overlooked or under-engaged by money-flush Democrats.
Those niches run the gambit, from moms’ clubs to trade groups, garden clubs to professional associations. Relationships with tea parties can definitely help identify and network into niches.
Niche-filling is more than conventional alliance or coalition building: it’s a means of undercutting an incumbent at the most elemental level in a community. The aim is to counter and neutralize the efficacy of an incumbent’s paid media (his big firepower). Key voters who are educated and persuaded ahead of an incumbent’s post-Labor Day big paid media blitzes are more likely to receive that paid media skeptically, if not with outright disbelief. Challengers need to organize advocates in niches who can work against an incumbent’s paid messaging once it begins. Earned (unpaid), alternative, and informal community media need to be thoroughly utilized to undercut an incumbent’s messaging.
Republican challengers should take heart from this assessment made recently by unnamed sources in a New York Times article:
Democrats worry that some lawmakers who have avoided tough races in the past could be at added risk of defeat because they are out of practice, slow on their feet and often reluctant to acknowledge the threat they are facing.
Smug, tuned-out incumbents are bonuses for challengers. A successful challenger campaign is about speed and maneuver, under any circumstance, but when an incumbent is little more than a squatting oaf, it’s a no-brainer. The critical word is “outflank.” Get around and behind an incumbent and press hard. Hammer on issues that resonant with voters and exploit the incumbent’s vulnerabilities.
While incumbents count their money, challengers need to scour communities for new contributors, big or small. Just one dollar given to a campaign by a voter is a commitment. A lot of dollar contributions are lots of commitments.
Another of Giap’s precepts was that wars are won by changing and commanding perceptions. While the communist Vietnamese never won key battles against the United States, Giap’s aim wasn’t always battlefield victories. His aim, in large part, was to impress upon stateside Americans that their perceptions of U.S. military dominance in Vietnam were false. The Tet Offensive was Giap’s tool for upsetting and changing American perceptions.
The Tet Offensive was, of course, a decisive military victory for the United States and the South Vietnamese, but it was a propaganda coup for the communists: the perception of American invincibility had been mortally wounded.
In campaign politics, an opportunity — a la Tet — to dramatically change voters’ perceptions of an incumbent’s invincibility is remote. Rare is the silver bullet in the perceptions game. Instead, finding many ways — often small — to demonstrate audacity and to publicize an incumbent’s contradictions and failures is what is needed. Changing voters’ perceptions cumulatively until reaching a critical mass is the goal.
Successful warfare for underdogs is a multi-dimensional affair and global in nature, as Giap emphasized. It’s what Giap referred to as the “synthesized concept.” Challengers shouldn’t spread their campaigns too thinly, but neither can their campaigns be one-trick ponies. It’s critical to engage enough issues and voters’ interests to gain one more vote than an incumbent obtains (more than that, given recounts).
Beyond the communist claptrap, Giap recognized that the Vietnamese who sided with the communists weren’t fighting for a workers’ paradise and international brotherhood. Pro-communist Vietnamese — peasants who did the bulk of the fighting and dying — did so to achieve national independence. Vietnam had a long history of invasion and occupation. Most Hanoi-supporting Vietnamese had a simple but powerful motivation: freedom from foreign domination.
Voters, like fighters, need to be for something or someone.
Though successful challenges are mostly about making elections referendums on incumbents, voters still need reasons to be for challengers. Giving voters compelling reasons to cast ballots for challengers is an important part of the mix.
As Giap might concede, there are no guarantees of victory, despite the best efforts by challengers. But by demonstrating the will to win, planning shrewdly, executing effectively, and adapting swiftly to changing circumstances, challengers can increase the chances of victory — in war and politics.