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There's No American Pharaoh In This Race

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When Hillary Clinton first ran for president eight years ago, she learned what Mike Tyson meant when he said, "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth." Her campaign collapsed under Barack Obama's relentless pounding.

Lawrence Freedman, who was foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair when he was the British prime minister, opened his 750-page examination of the best-laid strategies, "Strategy: A History," with Mike Tyson's advice. Hillary and all the presidential candidates should pay attention. It could be instructive.

Mr. Freedman demonstrates how a study of strategy is crucial for everyone who succeeds on the field of battle, whether the field is one of business, war or particularly politics. The well-aimed blow, above or below the belt, can always thwart the best-laid plans.

"The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, whether due to chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the sidesteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama."

It's a truism that generals fight the last war because that's what they know, and Hillary is clearly employing different tactics this time around. While she's getting hit with multiple punches over the destruction of her personal Internet server, foreign donations to the Clinton Family Foundation and the hiring of Sidney Blumenthal as her hit man, it's clear that her new strategy is not only different from her strategy of eight years ago, it differs from her husband's unifying campaigns that earned him two terms in the White House.

"One of the hardest things to do in politics is dispense with old behavior," Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser, tells The New York Times. This time "she has hired people with a sense of where the electorate is now, not where it was in 1992." Like most strategies, her approach is best measured against hindsight.


Lawrence Freedman's hindsight is vast and historical, and he's mainly interested in the larger perspective of strategy, devoting only four pages to Barack Obama duking it out with Hillary in 2008. He's more interested in the way strength and guile alternate as guides to political behavior, drawing distinctions between theory and practice. He ranges through history with stories from the Bible and the ancients, arriving at contemporary events with hard lessons along the way.

If every Goliath, for example, must beware that a David can destroy him, it's important to remember that David had the God of the Old Testament wielding power on his behalf. He didn't need backup. Moses, on the other hand, was a man armed with a modest demand, "Let my people go." God progressively raised the ante with plague after plague until the pharaoh was forced to concede that the God of Moses was more powerful than any of the pharaoh's magicians, shamans and small-g gods. This was successful "strategic coercion."

Political strategists more recently have relied on "the duel" as metaphor, a conflict that leaves only one man (or woman) standing. That metaphor is history, too. While many Hillary supporters in 2008 saw Barack Obama as the only winner in their duel, her coterie sees it differently today. Modern strategy enables Hillary to move from one stage to another, with flexibility and creativity, without having to give up entirely. Tactics enable delaying action, such as playing a game of hide-and-seek with the public, changing convictions and positions to avoid a conclusion or position that might be inconvenient later. Becoming secretary of State had its risks, but it turned out to be a smart move, pending further examination of her Internet server.


Campaigns are more likely today to bend to "shared interests," which can be altered to accommodate coalitions as needed. New voting patterns beget practical pressures that require a different kind of language and gamesmanship. The ability to think ahead and see the future is useful, but standing firm on old convictions, or at least appearing to stand firm, is important, too.

Hillary intends to put her faith, Obama-style, in the efficacy of electronic data, appealing to the left in a polarized electorate. Her risk is that, in gaining the nomination in this way, she loses the authority for uniting a nation and risks losing independent voters in the general election. Republican candidates are paying close attention.

Ecclesiastes tells us "that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." But Damon Runyan, the iconic sportswriter of an earlier era, reminds one and all that "that's the way to bet." American Pharaoh, the winner of the Triple Crown, might agree. But politics is not a horse race. It only seems that way.

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