Front Porch | The long game and strategy in politics
On Friday and Saturday of this week the Free National Movement (FNM) will hold a two-day conclave. Political conclaves are opportunities for frank discussions on how a political party is performing internally and how it is perceived externally.
For a governing party, such a convocation is an opportunity to note accomplishments, to brutally and honestly assess missteps and failures and to recalibrate and regroup where necessary.
This weekend’s gathering is a timely forum in which parliamentarians and party officers should reflect on the party’s mission and machinery, and on elemental concerns such as unity and collegiality. How much or how little esprit de corps is there among party colleagues?
Fundamentally, the FNM generally, and parliamentarians in particular, especially those who wish to have a political future, must reflect on the long game, the sine qua non of successful political parties and leaders.
The FNM may succeed if it calibrates a long game that includes policy and programmatic successes, an exceedingly better communications strategy and operation, and political unity and greater coherence. The party must especially understand the social media ecology and landscape and what these represent.
By example, given the complex nature of National Health Insurance, the government should have a coherent and disciplined communications strategy to accompany such a wide-scale initiative.
Mixed messages and a shambolic rollout will do great damage to the project and to the party no matter how well intentioned the overall initiative.
The current members of the FNM parliamentary caucus should also have a long game, especially those who have greater ambition for higher office and those who wish to leave a substantial policy legacy.
Sadly, some in the caucus are already flaming out, dying stars that are exploding spectacularly while doing damage to themselves and to the party. The best the party might do is to contain the fallout from some of those possessed of unbounded arrogance and narcissism, seemingly incapable of collegiality.
In politics, there have always been party people, loyal to the mission and values of a political organization, no matter whether the party is in or out of office. Then there are those for whom the party is merely a stepping stone for personal ambition at the expense of their colleagues.
In our context we might call it the Andre Rollins Syndrome, recalling the former Fort Charlotte MP, who bounced from party to party before his political goodnight. Trophies are best kept in a display case. When they are chosen for political office, they typically crash and burn under the weight of their own meandering ego.
Then there are the hidden gems, who may not initially bask in the limelight of attention and affection, but who have a sense of themselves, and of the long game of the slow, meticulous, mundane and often tedious work of elected politics.
Those with the long game bide their time. They demonstrate a certain humility and willingness to be mentored. They eschew paralyzing grievances such as not being immediately promoted to higher office.
Those with the long game do not disqualify themselves over nonsensical and petty matters. They demonstrate a steady head guided by long-term goals. They prove their abilities with successes in areas for which they have responsibility.
St. Barnabas and Bahamas Public Parks and Public Beaches Authority Chairman Shanendon Cartwright may not be as well-known as some of the other new or younger MPs, but he is demonstrating outstanding qualities to many in the party and the country.
A faithful and loyal party member recently noted that Cartwright often seeks advice and counsel. Cartwright has demonstrated a certain humility and a willingness to listen and to learn.
A letter to the editor in this journal in September noted of the MP: “In my humble view, Shanendon Cartwright is a bright and shining star… He demonstrates this every single day in his constituency of St. Barnabas in particular, and the wider Bahamas in general.
“He has developed many productive programs in his constituency, always seeking to improve the quality of life for all the people of St. Barnabas.”
When he has concerns about policy matters, Cartwright discusses them privately and within the councils of the party.
Unlike others, who are playing to certain galleries and to their press clippings in order to stroke their peacock-like feathers and ambition, Cartwright’s necessary and understandable ambition resides within the context of his party.
Just as the FNM has work to do to strengthen the party and to better position itself for three and a half more years of office and the next general election, the PLP also has tremendous work to do.
PLP Leader Philip Brave Davis has little vision or a record of accomplishment in the policy arena. He is making a number of repeated tactical mistakes. He remains unpopular and is not well considered among many Bahamians.
But despite these deficits, Davis is an intrepid organizer. He is hungry for office. He is a prodigious fundraiser, and he will assemble whatever team he needs to return the PLP to office.
Whereas former party Leader Perry Christie let the PLP atrophy and become dysfunctional at many levels, Davis is steadily and doggedly reviving the party machinery. He is laying the groundwork to recruit a new generation of candidates. Davis should not be underestimated. He has a sense of the long game.
There is a wasteland of failed politicians, typically with gargantuan egos, who were shooting stars for a season, instead of fixed stars, and who could not play the long game of politics, resulting in burnout and early political demise.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced her intention to step down as chair of the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by year’s end, and that she would not seek a fifth term as chancellor in 2021.
The wily, self-effacing and tactically adept Merkel has typically played the long game in German and international politics. She especially understood how to manipulate and to play political jujitsu with the male egos in her party and among foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Merkel, who holds a PhD. in quantum chemistry, joined the socially conservative CDU.
Shortly thereafter, she was appointed as minister of women and youth and later as minister for the environment and nuclear safety in the Cabinet of the political colossus and brilliant Helmut Kohl, who helped achieve German reunification.
Merkel proved a workhorse not a show horse. She worked hard at her ministries and was a team player, demonstrating collegiality in the overall interest of the party. She built critical relationships and alliances. Merkel did not let her ambition outstrip her measured and methodical climb to the chancellorship.
Collegiality is important not only for the success of a government. A commitment to and demonstration of collegiality by a Cabinet minister also helps him or her to succeed long term and to foster alliances and credibility among colleagues.
Former UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is notoriously bad at collegiality. He has constantly played the spoiler and has burned his bridges with party colleagues whom he might wish to call on in the future in his quest to be prime minister.
Ministers who continuously make public announcements about matters in their portfolio that are before Cabinet, but which are deferred or undecided, damage both their colleagues and themselves.
Such ministers set themselves up for eventual failure because they are seen as a one-man or a one-woman band more interested in personal ambition and success than they are in the success of the government.
Those who play the long game know when to speak and when to remain quiet. Not every issue requires an immediate public response. Often, no response is required.
A minister should resist the temptation to debate policy issues in public that are before Cabinet. And publicly, constantly and condescendingly criticizing one’s officials or public officers in public is amateurish and self-defeating.
Following Kohl’s defeat in the 1998 general election, Merkel was named as party secretary general. In 2000, she was chosen to lead her party but the candidacy for chancellor went to another candidate instead of Merkel.
Despite this setback, instead of retreating from the CDU or playing the spoiler, Merkel played the long game. She demonstrated unity, bided her time and worked to bolster the party’s fortunes.
In 2005, she narrowly defeated Chancellor Gerhard Schröder by just three seats. Her party then entered into a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel was elected the first female chancellor of Germany, becoming one of the more influential and powerful world leaders.
Now nearing the end of her career, Merkel, who has been elected four times, has her share of failures. But she has also enjoyed enormous success, including the sustained resilience and vibrancy of the German economy.
A great part of her success was playing a long game, making tactical and intermediate gains as she pursued long-term strategies and goals meticulously, typically above and beyond the din and the clamoring noise of the moment.