November 5, 2008
The M & M Strategy
How Obama Won
By CHUCK SPINNEY
The M&M or Motherhood and Mismatch Strategy was conceived by the American strategist, Col. John R. Boyd. The basic goal of an M&M strategy is to build support for and attract the uncommitted to your cause by framing a “motherhood” position -- i.e., a position no one can object to, like the mythical “motherhood, apple pie, and the American way” -- and then inviting your opponent in to repeatedly attack it and, in so doing, smash himself to pieces at the mental and the even more decisive moral level of conflict. Self-destruction will happen inevitably, if you can successfully induce your adversary into attacking your motherhood position in a way that exposes mismatches among the three poles of his moral triangle, defined by (1) What your opponent says he is; (2) What he really is as defined by his actions; and (3) the World he has to deal with. Whether consciously or not, I believe Obama has an intuitive feel for the moral leverage inherent in the M&M strategy and this enabled him to outmaneuver McCain and his campaign and bring them to the verge of mental and moral collapse. That Obama also did this to Hillary Clinton suggests it is no accident.
The key to setting up a successful M&M strategy is building the Motherhood position, then making it into a moral fortress. This is easier said than done, because it involves defining your cause nontrivially in self-evidently positive terms and then shaping the environment as well as your self-definition in a way that always reinforces that motherhood position. Mr. Obama defined himself initially as a unifier and a change agent for a divided country in which a clear majority of people believed their nation was on the wrong pathway into the future. Who can argue with that definition? To be sure, it is an empty vessel, but it is pure motherhood, and it works like a charm if you can maneuver your adversary into playing by your rules.
Obama skillfully used passionate, uplifting oratory to energize mass demonstrations to set the initial self-definition in the public mind and to build enthusiasm and momentum, and then he demonstrated coolness under pressure and carefully crafted oratory to reinforce that motherhood position with his self definition. Sometimes he did this subliminally, as in his speech at Cooper Union, which led historian Gary Wills to dutifully compare Obama’s speech to Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union. And sometimes Obama was more direct, as in his thoughtful Philadelphia speech which converted the Wright affair into a larger discussion of how racism affects whites as well as blacks.
Obama put the final touches on this self definition in the debates and capped it off in a brilliantly produced “infomercial.” But while he was making subliminal appeals to Lincoln and direct appeals to man’s better angels, Obama also baited McCain to attack him, usually subtly with the political equivalent of a rope-a-dope jabbing operation. He constantly compared McCain’s votes in the Senate to Bush’s record and made fun of the contradictions implicit in McCain’s positions. Occasionally Obama’s jabs were brazen, e.g., when he publicly dared McCain to bring up the Ayers connection before the third debate. McCain foolishly went for that red cape and in so doing diminished himself in front of millions.
A key aspect of Obama’s tactical jabs is that they were never hateful and almost never personal, unless legitimated as tit for tat by McCain’s personal guilt-by-association attacks on Obama. Instead, Obama’s tactical jabs were usually focused on contradictions implicit in McCain’s actions and campaign speeches, which McCain, being of a belligerent nature, obligingly took personally. In retrospect, it is now clear that Obama’s actions never deviated from his motherhood image of being a coolly competent unifier intent on changing the status quo. He reinforced that definition with disciplined behaviour that was always consistent with the three poles of his own moral triangle, even when exogenous events intervened in the world he had to deal with, which became especially clear during the financial panic, which he exploited simply by stepping back and keeping his cool.
The contrast between Obama’s M&M strategy and McCain’s behavior was stunning. Obama, a newcomer and virtual outsider, used uplifting, albeit vague, oratory to shape the popular environment in a way that reinforced his own self-definition. In contrast, McCain, like Hillary before him, is a creature of the Washington status quo, a known quantity. And like Hillary, he chose to echo Obama’s call for change. So, he fell into the same trap and signed on to Obama’s definition of Motherhood -- unity and change. It was a trap, because McCain’s definition of motherhood, like Hillary’s, was illogical at its core -- McCain’s argument implicitly asked voters to buy the following gibberish: ‘I am an experienced creature of the status quo in a country where a large majority of you believe it to be dangerously divided and on the wrong pathway into the future, but my experience (in helping to create this status quo?) makes me the better qualified to achieve the Motherhood goal (which the inexperienced outsider had the temerity to establish?).’
Borrowing your adversary’s motherhood position is not the best way to kick off your own M&M strategy.
It is now clear that an M&M strategy was not McCain’s intention, even though he signed up for Obama’s game. To see why, let us examine McCain’s strategic triangle in the context of his fundamentally weak starting point. Bear in mind, the triangle is a clean abstraction; reality is of course messier, categories overlap and sharp distinctions always fade into penumbras in the real world. Nevertheless, I think applying this abstraction can be a useful analytical tool to clarify our appreciation of why the M&M strategy can be so powerful in Obama’s case and so destructive in McCain’s case:
(1) What McCain says he is: McCain, being a well-known creature of the establishment, had less maneuver room in which to define himself than Obama. He chose to expand the myth he had assiduously created for himself by defining himself as a man of honor with the wisdom born of hard experience, as an independent maverick, and as a super patriot whose most basic moral value was to put country ahead of self interest no matter what the cost. Indeed “Country First” was the bumper-sticker of his campaign.
(2) What McCain Really Is: McCain’s own actions, which define who the man he really is, contradicted his own self-definition over and over again, and to an increasingly sharp degree. Consider, please, the following: (a) By going negative with personal attacks that increasingly relied on McCarthyesque, guilt-by-association oratory, McCain and especially his running mate, Sarah Palin, tried to destroy Obama’s character by attacking his motives, patriotism, and even making oblique references to Obama’s otherness (code for race). In effect, McCain shouted to the world that he was just another Rovian attack dog, that he was more of the same, and not the change agent he claimed to be.
Moreover, while McCain violated his own claim of being a change agent, his smarmy attacks left Obama’s definition of motherhood entirely intact, unquestioned, and probably reinforced. (b) By sowing division in the country, pitting region against region, town against city, real Americans against not-real Americans, and even inciting violent mob-like attitudes in the minds of supporters, McCain and especially Sarah Palin contradicted McCain’s own self definition of putting country before self interest. (c) By picking Sara Palin as his running mate, he chose a person who is manifestly not ready to become president, should McCain die in office. This decision not only reinforced the violation of his self definition of putting country before self, it also contradicted his self definition of being an independent maverick, because the choice of Palin was obviously a sop to the right wing base of the Republican party. And, to make matters worse, the choice of Palin contradicted his self definition of wisdom under pressure forged in the fires of experience, because even though he had from March until August to choose a running mate, he converted that important decision into an impulsive crapshoot at the last minute, in effect betting on snake eyes, without considering the mathematical odds shaping that outcome.
(3) Now let’s look at the world McCain had to deal with: i.e., coping with the strategic maneuvers of Obama as well as the exogenous events that always intervene from time to time, most important being the financial meltdown. As noted above, like Hillary Clinton, McCain fell into Obama’s trap by defining motherhood in Obama’s terms. The strategic consequence was profound: To win, McCain, like Hillary before him, had two options: He could take the high road and play the game on Obama’s terms in the hope that he could beat an obviously intelligent Obama intellectually, or that Obama would loose his cool and destroy himself by attacking McCain in a way that contradicted the three legs of Obama’s own strategic triangle. Or ... McCain could take the low road, and willfully violate the terms of his own strategic triangle in the hope that he could destroy Obama in a brutal head-on personal attack, before the consequences of the violation came back to haunt him.
The first option held little promise of success for McCain, because Obama had been carefully reinforcing the legs of his own strategic triangle for at least a year and a half, and he had honed his defenses against his own self-destructive temptations during his epic struggle with Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence that McCain ever understood the nature of the strategic choice Obama had maneuvered him into facing. Whether McCain realized it or not, he chose the second strategic option which, in military terms, turned out to be the antithesis of Sun Tzu’s advice to always focus your strength against your adversary’s weakness. McCain, like Hillary, chose to risk weakening his own strategic triangle with a welter of unfocused tactical assaults, which played directly into Obama’s strength. In effect, what passed for “strategy” in the McCain campaign was to mindlessly throw everything at Obama in the hope of landing a lucky punch.
But a welter of Hail Mary attack thrusts is not a strategy in any real sense; it is merely an unfocused jumble of disconnected tactics. And if one’s opponent is clever at playing the M&M game, these lunges become a prescription for self-immolation. As the futility of each assault became apparent, McCain switched tactics in what became a mess of increasingly desperate attempts to connect with something that worked -- Ayers, Joe the Plumber, Obama is a socialist, Obama is a wealth spreader, back to Joe the Plumber, etc -- all conveying the impression of flailing around in a futile search to find some combination, any combination, of lucky punches that would score.
McCain’s mindless desperation came into especially sharp relief when the exogenous effect of the financial meltdown intruded and tempted McCain into committing a grandstanding stunt that quickly became an embarrassing debacle. McCain first made a big deal of publicly postponing his participation in the third debate for the “sake of the country,” then he sowed confusion by rushing to Washington to build a bipartisan consensus, but while in Washington, he did nothing to fix the problem or build a consensus. Then he reversed course saying things were fixed enough, so he could participate in the debate. So much for his claim of wisdom born of hard experience. Meanwhile, Obama stood by coolly while the flailing McCain flung himself off the cliff.
While there are many other examples I could cite, I think it is clear that McCain’s decision to emulate Hillary and take the low road fit into Obama’s M&M strategy like a hand fits into a glove: McCain used his own energy to bash his own moral triangle to pieces. Not surprisingly, his mental game degenerated into confusion and disorder, but more importantly, he destroyed himself morally. And in so doing, it was McCain who made the best case demonstrating why he was unfit to be President: Like most fighter pilots -- Boyd being a stunning exception -- McCain could not or would not think beyond tactics. Notwithstanding any personal bravery he may have demonstrated earlier as a naval officer, his ineptitude in the strategic game, which became clearly evident in his duel with the wily Obama, proved that he is morally and mentally unfit to be a successful Commander in Chief.
Obama, on the other hand, proved again that he is a master of the strategy game, and being an effective leader -- President as well as Commander in Chief -- is all about strategy.
In terms of Colonel Boyd’s Moral Design for Grand Strategy -- his M&M strategy, McCain strove to benefit himself by violating codes of conduct and standards of behavior he professed to uphold and others expected him to uphold, and in so doing he destroyed himself at the mental level of competition by corrupting his own decision-making process. At the moral level of competition, McCain dishonored himself by letting his ambition destroy the very identity he had so assiduously built since the early 1980s. Only in his concession speech did he seek to recover that identity.
But a larger question remains: Does Obama really intend to deliver on his twin promise of unity and change. Neither of his main adversaries in the race for President had the strategic sense or the ability to smoke out how Obama actually intends to fulfill the soaring hopes and dreams that his M&M strategy unleashed. An early indicator of his real intentions will become clear when he name his Treasury Secretary and Defense Secretary. If he picks one of the democratic apparatchiks or ex-Clintonites who magnified existing problems that Bush made worse, Obama’s presidency will become just another step down the slippery slope that got its first real greasing by the guns and butter decision-making style of the Vietnam War.