Crazy Ivan:

April 21, 2007

McCain Damns the Torpedoes

We didn’t expect to begin this blog with a Crazy Ivan – pound for pound, the riskiest of plays. Plays are the irreducibly simple stratagems that people and organizations use to influence one another, and this one operates at the margins of reason.

As detailed in Alan Kelly’s new book, The Elements of Influence, there are 25 unique moves that playmakers shield and wield to advance their position. Plays can be decoded, described, classified and countered. Whether you’re in business, pop culture or politics, whether you’re a win-win collaborator or a cutthroat competitor, you run plays and plays are run on you – especially if you’re running for president.
So we start with an example of unconventional political playmaking by someone who we already know as an unconventional playmaker, John McCain. Today, the Arizona Senator is the preeminent advocate for winning the war in Iraq. Whereas Bush and Cheney can carry the fight only to Jan. 20, 2009, McCain could – and apparently would – keep it going. This gives the conservative candidate the dubious honor of having to answer for every bombing, every casualty and every setback in the war…Senator or President, it makes no difference. And he can’t change the subject. His other signature positions, like campaign finance reform and immigration policy, aren’t popular with the GOP base.
Then what play “can” he run? A play that”s, well, a little nuts.
This week, McCain staged his own surge on Iraq with a Washington Post op/ed and a high-profile speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. The choice in Iraq, he put it simply, is between victory and defeat. (Hint: He’s for victory.) Like Admiral Farragut at Mobile Bay, the Naval Academy graduate steamed full speed through the mines of violent extremists, irresponsible Democrats and Washington cynics (his terms), not to mention the majority of Americans who disagree with his position. It was a deliberate and coolly-run Crazy Ivan.
Which begs two questions: Why is this Crazy? And who is Ivan?
Crazy Ivan, classified in The Playmaker’s Table as one of four attacking moves, is a good strategy for a bad day. It’s named for fast-acting Soviet sub commanders of the Cold War era who, fearing their cover was blown, learned to run silent, turn sharp, and listen hard for tailgating American subs. It’s “Crazy” because it invites an attack as much as it exposes it. And it’s “Ivan” because that’s what we called the Soviets.
To rally support and stun the competition, McCain ran his provocative play with cheerful defiance. Americans want their Presidents to be optimists afterall. So at VMI, before surge-friendly cadets and vets, McCain came to life with stories of savage terrorists who sacrifice their own children and, by contrast, brave and wounded American soldiers who renew their faith in the war. He lacked punch in his well-worn punch line: “I would rather lose a campaign than a war.” And his smile was too tight as he praised the Iraq war veterans seated in the front rows. But through his rhetoric, he stared down his enemies, commencing an epic and on-strategy game of political chicken.
Did McCain have any choice but to damn-the-torpedoes? Sure. He could have run a simple Pause , accepting the self-inflicted wounds of his recent third-place “money primary” and over-managed Baghdad market strut, all to regroup and regear for April 25 and a formal announcement of candidacy. But he knew not to wait because, for better or worse, this playmaker”s time to act is now.
How will politicos respond to this crazy play? If you’re a Democrat you might think this one”s red meat. If you’re a Republican the answer is surely a little more tricky. We’ll call those plays in the next post.
Posted by Alan Kelly & Michael Cornfield