Lessons from the War Room

Stan Greenberg is one of the world's leading Democratic pollsters.


Stan Greenberg is one of the world's leading Democratic pollsters. He has worked with some of the most recognizable and influential leaders of this generation. After earning his Ph.D. at Harvard and teaching for a decade at Yale, he rose to prominence in the consulting world after his study of Reagan Democrats in Michigan cemented populism as a successful Democratic strategy.In his new book “Dispatches from the War Room,” Greenberg recounts his experiences advising five world leaders—Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Ehud Barak and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada—on the campaign trail and in their subsequent administrations. Greenberg is not timid in criticizing the methods of some of his fellow pollsters. He says that he ever takes Mark Penn's perspective on polling, someone should "take me out and shoot me," and says about Dick Morris that:

He always wants to operate on the dark side and hungers to attack the opposition. He reminds me of the short guy in the mob movie who tries to prove he is the toughest and most loyal by jumping at the chance to do the hit, his look implying that the others lack the nerve to get the job done and thus do not serve the boss well.

Nor is Greenberg apologetic about the highly partisan stance of his consulting. The diminishing partisanship of the consulting world has, in Greenberg's eyes, raised what in many ways is the central question of the book:

Are we witnessing a hostage situation—the centers of power seized by a professional elite who have turned high purpose into mere policies and leadership into a frenetic daily search for popularity? Is it possible that the techniques that I have mastered to make leaders more accountable to the people actually make it possible for political leaders to avoid accountability? What if my work permits "elected leaders" to grow arrogant and out of touch, even venal and unsympathetic to the common good without consequence? Put simply, does my work allow leaders to loosen their bond with people and diminish its purposefulness?

We took a few minutes to talk with Greenberg about partisanship, effective political strategies and how consulting can remain part of a politics that has "honor and purpose."Can you expand on the difference between what Joe Klein calls “the pollster-consultant industrial complex” and the more honorable politics you argue for?I think I’m frank about what I do throughout the book: I’m part of the complex, for good or ill. But so much of the focus is on the game and the kill and the excitement that comes with the battle. Which is fine. If you want to win campaigns, you’re going to be tough; you’re going to be tactical; you’re going to attack as necessary. The question is: Is all this embedded in politics? I’m arguing that the leaders that I put at the center of this book had lifetime, evolving personal missions. When you’re engaging in these kinds of tactics for a candidate that has a purpose, you understand how advantageous it is to have a larger set of beliefs or values. [Not having that] tends to diminish the meaning of politics.Do you think consultants who value their tactics over their partisanship can be effective?The consultants who relish in tactics—Dick Morris or maybe [Mark] Penn—I’m not sure if they are successful with candidates for president. Obama dominated change. Hillary Clinton had a strategy for all the microgroups she was going to build in her coalition. If you’re able to align to the forces that are working in the country, you’re likely to have a more powerful campaign. You’re not out there all alone, bobbing and weaving. You’re taking control of the ring by using the forces around you. The starting point for me is E.E. Schattschneider, who said whoever succeeds in defining what the fight’s about is the one who gets attention [and] the one who dominates the debate.In the book, you criticize Mark Penn’s idea of “microtrends.” Can you expand on this criticism?He’s not the total owner of this. But this idea that there’s some new group that’s the bellwether for this year’s election—whether that’s soccer moms or office park dads—the press love it. What I argue is it’s only if you have a diminished ideology or diminished issues that you find this space for a politics given over to groups. “Microtrends” is to me just that process multiplied: searching for the one percent, the whole series of groups of people that are one or two percent. It’s a way to miss what’s going on. When I think about the campaigns I’ve helped run, I’ve always resisted the strategy of targeting groups. The starting point is controlling the meaning of the election—controlling the choice. Once you’ve done that then you can get to the groups. It’s a mistake to disaggregate the campaign before you’ve been able to drive to the big forces at work. And it’s not just for national elections.Given the public frustration with “permanent campaigns,” what role do you think consultants should play once a leader is in power?I’m not apologetic about the “war room” or the “permanent campaign.” All of these leaders seem to run into problems: They’re not as popular as they think they were; the Congress comes to think they have their own sets of interests; there’s need for fiscal austerity. Pretty quickly you find it’s hard to carry out your mandate. There’s a constant struggle to educate and to bring people with you. I think leaders who understand and build that capacity have a better chance of succeeding. They’re not putting their finger to the wind, but they’re trying to build a bond with people. It seems to me no different at mayor than as president. Wherever there are competitive elections, how you run, what you said you were going to try to achieve will be part of how people judge you.You mention that each presidency has a “presidential idea that creates the moment that makes the presidency possible.” What is that idea for President Obama?Well, change. [laughs] Frequently you look at a campaign at the end and assume a it always had that core idea at the beginning. And it’s not true. Obama, if you look at him in the primary, his personal instinct was to go to a post-partisan politics and unify the country. He didn’t speak out consistently on the economy. And I believe that gave Hillary Clinton her window to come back in the primary and hold on. But from Sept. 15 was he focused on the economy like a laser. It wasn’t that he had this idea at the beginning. He eventually came down to economic change. But he’s clearly committed to new ways of addressing this problem.Stanley B. Greenberg is CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and provides strategic advice and research for leaders, companies, campaigns, and NGOs trying to advance their issues in tumultuous times. Greenberg has served as pollster to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer.

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