Cunning and guile are essential components of political leadership. The two Presidents that top my list FDR and Lincoln had both attributes in spades. My number three, George Washington, has been painted by history as a stuffed shirt, but he allowed Alexander Hamilton to do the heavy lifting and take all the heat. GW denounced political factionalism while being an arch-Federalist. It *is* true that it’s possible to have an overabundance of cunning: Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair come to mind. Most of their problems were down to slyness turning into slipperiness. Overall, cunning is a good quality in a leader: if only second-term Woodrow Wilson had shown the cunning of first-term Wilson the post-Great War scene might have been less of a shit show.
As Tricky would say: let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am not opposed to principled stands in the face of majority opinion. I just believe one should first try to finagle one’s way around them in order to get something accomplished. As always, I am a member of the center-left wing of the Get Shit Done Party.
One of my main concerns about Barack Obama in 2008 was that he lacked cunning and guile. I was wrong about that. It took some time but few Presidents have been as politically adept and cunning in dealing with both friends and adversaries. The ability to project idealism while backing it up with cunning is a gift given only to the greatest leaders such as FDR and Lincoln.
The reason my mind turned to cunning and its use in politics is because of two politicians who lack it: Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Both men are true believers who make fine speeches but seem to lack the ability to convince other politicians to follow them. One cannot be a leader without followers. A talent possessed by both FDR and Lincoln was an uncanny ability to convert adversaries into supporters. The best example of all was Lincoln’s relationship with his 1860 nomination opponent and Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Seward famously tried to get the President to sign a document that would have made Seward de facto Prime Minister. Lincoln stopped the effort and commenced wooing Seward. It worked. The two men became close colleagues and even closer friends. It takes a subtle and flexible nature to do this; a more recent example involves Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
There’s an outstanding piece today by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie about how Senator Sanders squandered his influence with a combination of recalcitrance and excessive purism:
Sanders wasn’t going to be the Democratic nominee, but he still held a good amount of leverage in the form of his voters. After a tough primary, they were hesitant to back Clinton, a fact apparent in the polls. Clinton stood ahead of Donald Trump, but not by much: Her lead was weakened by the party’s unbridged divisions. By holding off on a concession and an endorsement, the Vermont senator was keeping this leverage in reserve ahead of the Democratic National Convention. It made sense.
Still, it was a risky move. Whatever influence or leverage Sanders had was tied to his voters. As long as they stuck with him—and didn’t move to Clinton—he could make demands and win concessions on items like the Democratic Party’s platform, a key object of his rhetoric over the past month. But if his voters moved without his endorsement, either pushed by fear of Trump or support from other Democrats, then the value of his support would fall accordingly.
Which is what happened. In his nonconcession speech, Sanders told supporters their “major political task” was to “make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly.” It turns out that was the message that landed.
Another example of Sanders’ tone-deafness involved the Democrats recent anti-gun efforts in the Senate and House. Sanders did not attend the Senate filibuster and showed up for a few minutes during the House sit-in with camera crews in tow. His apologists have yammered on about his need to placate rural gum owners in Vermont, but if he were the uber-principled pol they paint him as, he would have done more. He was undermined by his lack of cunning and guile. Symbols matter and he could afford to lose some votes in Vermont in exchange for supporting his colleagues. It’s one reason that only Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley supported him during the primary season. Merkley is now supporting the presumptive nominee.
Jeremy Corbyn is afflicted with a similar lack of cunning and guile. He’s had a year to woo his parliamentary colleagues to his side but was too busy making speeches to the converted. When his lacklustre performance in the EU Referendum campaign was called out, he fell back on rhetoric and ideological platitudes. He lost a vote of no-confidence yesterday 172-40, which means he either needs to resign as leader or face another leadership contest. Btw, despite claims by British and American dudebros alike this isn’t a Blairite plot but a genuine revolt of members who do not want to face the electorate with Corbyn as their leader. A bit of cunning and guile applied in the last year might have prevented it. Once again: you cannot be a leader without followers.
It continually amazes me that people don’t understand that everyday people skills are applicable to politics. Earnest speeches aren’t enough, personal relationships matter. If you’re clueless or abrupt with your colleagues they’re unlikely to want to help you. We all compromise every day of our lives but some are gobsmacked when politicians do the same thing. Politics is about helping people and the only way to help people is to win elections. You cannot extend Social Security benefits from the sidelines. You need to be in the game.
Principles and ideals are important, but without cunning and guile one cannot put those ideals to work. A refusal to compromise is every bit as bad as over-compromising or caving. Leaders without cunning and guile are mere disaster purists who won’t accomplish anything and will find themselves without followers soon enough.