ON Kilter: When tactician meets strategist, ‘The Art of War’ in the presidential campaign

Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News

OPINION – In what is undoubtedly a battle, application of “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu as an appraisal tool reveals some insights into our two primary presidential candidates, the strengths and weaknesses of their respective campaign methodology. It may even serve as a divining rod for the outcome.

According to Sun Tzu, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

To appreciate Sun Tzu’s premise, we need to understand that strategy without tactics is like a ship without a rudder, it eventually reaches its destination but it meanders its way there and can take a long time. Tactics without strategy is that same ship with a rudder but without a clear destination or course, as a result it is seriously at risk of never arriving at any destination.

My hypothesis is that we have a tactician in Mitt Romney and a strategist in Barak Obama, each is strong in his own skill set, but neither adequately possess both skills.

As the election moves to its final phases and the last debate, what we are witnessing is the systematic dismantling of the campaign of the tactician, who has squared off quite presumptively with an accomplished strategist.

Like a poker player who implements the tactics of his poker game in a chess match with an accomplished player, Romney pulled out all the stops. His primary tactic seems to be that of an overwhelming emotional appeal to his likeability while insisting the rest of the country just see that Obama is a failure.

News flash: Neither of these men are failures. Both of them are accomplished in their respective fields and are methodically carrying out their agendas.

But in a contest or battle of any sort, tactics alone will not suffice and Romney appears to not know this.

For example, during the second debate, Romney was recovering from just having been formally chastised by the president for implying he and his staff had politicized the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. (One might remember it was in fact Romney who took much heat for making allegations about the attacks without having all of the facts.)

Romney went on the offensive for an “aha” moment when he questioned whether or not the president had referred to the attack as an “act of terror” the following day in the Rose Garden. The Romney-Obama exchange went like this:

“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying?”

“Please proceed governor.”

Napoleon’s “Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself,” comes to mind. Romney, despite the president’s clue that a hidden move was in play, walked right into it:

“I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack at Benghazi an act of terror.”

The moderator, Candy Crowley, corrected the governor.

In point of fact, the President had called it an act of terror and the governor could not back peddle fast enough to recover from what was now a foregone conclusion: He had lost his debate.

But the real moment of clarity distinguishing the tactician versus the strategist came about when Romney failed to take into account that the president would get the final word in the night’s debate. He closed his remarks with a sincere appeal to the American people that he cared about 100 percent of the American people.

Had he been a strategist, Romney would never have invited the president to remind the American people that he actually, as has been suggested and clearly overblown, only cares about 53 percent. He would never have used the “percent” word. By bringing it up, he left the door wide open for the president to close out the evening with a woodshed beating on the topic.

This process as a whole could be likened to my earlier picture of watching someone who plays a mean game of poker squaring off with an accomplished chess player – chess, being the pinnacle game of strategy, coming against poker which is won by tactical bluffs, brazen moves, and assumptions about what the other players know.

In chess, the entire game is there to be seen, moves and all, by everyone. One cannot make a play without being seen and checked out by opponent and observers.

In chess, if you play someone long enough, you will likely find that they almost always begin with the same three moves.

With only a few matches so far, it is unclear yet what all of Romney’s consistent moves are; but one of his moves is certain, he likes to bring the queen out early in the game.

It appears Obama played the first round to learn Romney’s strategy.

And in the second round, an overconfident Romney did not consider that his strategist opponent had flushed out his tactics in the first. Obama clearly won the second debate by implementing what he had learned in the first.

The way things are headed, given that the third debate is on foreign policy, a weak area for Romney, it will likely be a check and mate for Obama.

The right combination of strategy and tactics is undefeatable, but if each possesses only one or the other, the one with the best strategy will likely prevail.

See you out there.

Dallas Hyland is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @dallashyland

Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2012, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!


  • Roy J October 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    That is not a syllogism. Success does not justify rotten methods. Debates between liars, crooks and thieves are not worth listening to. If a voter wants to make an informed decision about how a candidate will act in the future they should take the time to familarize themselves with that candidate has done in the past. The voter will probably throw up their hands in despair after doing this, but whatever. After all, qualified journalists report on politics as if politics were a football game.

    • Joyce Kuzmanic October 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm

      Fair enough on “syllogism,” we will swap that word with “premise,” on behalf of Mr. Hyland.

  • Roy J October 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Joyce Kuzmanic is awesome.

  • Murat October 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    You’re wrong, Hyland, and with inadeqaute analysis as usual. It was never the intention of the backroom power brokers to have Obama serve two terms. Romney’s election is a foregone conclusion and the ‘candidates’ have another act or two in the despicable entertainment routine until ‘election night.’

  • Roy J October 19, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    @Murat: You’re wrong, too, if it comes to that. If power brokers meet in backrooms to discuss how to implement elaborate and expensive ways of disenfranchising the mob of its’ right to vote, it is only because there is a mob with a vote that must needs be disenfranchised. The mob, if it really wanted to expose voter fraud, could thumb its’ nose at the power brokers and unanimously vote Donald Duck.

  • Murat October 19, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    You do not understand. Romney is the next president of the United States, REGARDLESS OF ANYTHING. Meaning, NO MATTER WHAT.

  • Roy J October 20, 2012 at 9:50 am

    @Murat: given there are only two candidates with a platform large enough to support a probable victory (barring Donald Duck, of course), you have a 50% chance of being right. But you’re still wrong. If Romney has a heart attack between now and the November election that will only drive the point home. Hit those keys harder, I can hardly hear your capslock.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.