Tag: decision-making

How did he screw this up so badly?

I don’t really want to pile on, but the question for me is: how does a major presidential candidate in the 21st century (and a guy who has been running for office now for seven straight years) screw this up so badly?

As a resident of Massachusetts, I watched Romney as governor, he wasn’t a disaster and I don’t think he ever displayed the level of incompetence that we’ve seen recently. So what’s going on?

I’ve been pondering this with various Massachusetts political analysts/friends over the past day, here’s what I see:

As governor, Romney’s staff was small and most decisions were made within a tight-knit group of advisers. He governed a state in which the Democrats held both houses of the legislature with overwhelming, veto-proof, majorities. Given the constraints, he took risks, often made quick judgments, and went straight to the cameras in an effort to get out ahead of slower, entrenched Democratic Party leadership. He also vetoed more than 800 bills — almost all of which were overturned.

He’s now been running for office for nearly seven straight years and he’s developed a campaign organization, and strategy that is similar to his governor’s staff with its emphasis on “efficiency,” streamlined decisionmaking, and quick response. He relies heavily on a small group of core political (not policy) advisors and his world is about rapid reaction, getting out in the lead, and staying ahead in instantaneous news cycles. Nuance and complexity don’t fit. Wonky candidates are seen as indecisive — Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis — and they lose. Every talking point is carefully crafted to resonate in the politico echo-chamber. Romney disdains Obama and the complexity of Obama’s policy because he’s spent the past four years creating fictions and simple caricatures.

But there are risks to this style of campaign — the message lacks depth and the process lacks checks.

This hasn’t been a problem on most domestic issues where Romney has experience and a certain comfort zone — he can pivot and fill in substantive gaps on policy when confronted by journalists or potential voters on the campaign trail. But the risks are exposed on foreign policy where he has no real experience to ground or contextualize the talking points and the simple caricatures he’s constructed. He still doesn’t have a weighty foreign policy expert traveling with him on a daily bais who can provide a check on the substantive side. His initial statement on the Libya events and the doubling down on that statement appear to have come without consultation with a wider group of foreign policy thinkers within the party. He and his campaign didn’t appear to contemplate that there might be uncertainty about the fast moving events. They didn’t appear to comprehend the complexity of the situation. They didn’t appear to understand the potential reaction to their rapid political response to a tragedy.

I don’t think Romney’s glaring mistake here was that he shot from the hip. I think it goes deeper. Here’s a guy (and a campaign) who is clearly thin on national security and foreign policy; a guy who has made a number of mistakes in the past two months — the fiasco of his highly touted foreign tour, the bizarre neglect of any mention of veterans or the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech, and now this. Yet, neither Romney nor his inner circle seem to have acknowledged their weakness — even to themselves. This is what I find most troubling — the inability to self-reflect, to acknowledge a mistake (even if the acknowledgment is purely internal) and to fix a glaring weakness. It’s a failure of the candidate, it’s a failure of his inner circle, it’s a failure of the campaign’s organizational structure, and it’s all too close to George W. Bush for my taste.

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2008 Grawemeyer winner

University of California, Berkeley, professor Philip Tetlock has won the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The prize is worth $200,000.

The December 3 Chronicle of Higher Education
has a brief piece that explains the rationale for the prize:

Predictions on political issues are frequently wrong, says Mr. Tetlock, which is unfortunate because lawmakers frequently rely on such analyses to shape policy. In a 20-year study of 27,000 predictions made by 284 “experts” cited in the news media, he found that, very often, the professionals were no more accurate in their crystal-ball gazing than ordinary people.

“In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area-study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations,” writes Mr. Tetlock in his 2005 book about the study, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton).

Experts need to receive more training and be held publicly accountable for their advice, he argues in the book.

The university press release noted:

Award judges called the book “a landmark study that changes our understanding of the way experts perform when they make judgments about world politics.”

One of the members of the final selection committee outlined his support for Tetlock’s book in Tuesday’s local paper:

“It’s one of these really thorough, long-term projects,” [Professor Charles E.] Ziegler said. “He did a lot of interviews, spent a lot of time thinking it through. He was self-critical and balanced.”

In political science, many critics argue that it is not possible to be objective and scientific, yet Tetlock’s research shows “we can still strive for that,” Ziegler said.

And Tetlock’s observations have broad applications to decision-making and forecasting in many fields, Ziegler added.

The Louisville Courier Journal story by James Carroll also included this quote from the author about the irrationality of political discourse in the US:

“There seems to be a rather perverse, inverse relationship between what people find persuasive in political rhetoric and the qualities of reason that are conducive to accuracy in the political sphere,” he said. “There’s a trade-off between being persuasive and being right.”

The local paper also has a nice explanation of the way Tetlock casts experts as either foxes or hedgehogs.

Jacob Levy and Dan Drezner mentioned the prize on their blogs too.

Disclosure: I chair the Department Committee that overseas the administration of this prize.

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