With Russia’s surprise decision to launch airstrikes against Syrian rebels, the Afghan government’s failure to defend Kunduz, and the flood of Syrian refugees in Syria, we’ve entered a surprising moment in American politics where the right answer, contrary to all conventional political wisdom, might be “It’s complicated, stupid.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
In the coming months, every presidential candidate worth their salt might consider creating a winning political message by taking Holmes up on his advice and leaning into complexity. They could promise that they’ll work hard to design intricate policies that mirror the world’s actual challenges. And they could (convincingly) argue that Americans should trust them precisely because of that approach.
Of course, what I’ve just written totally violates campaign orthodoxy. Back in 1996, I participated in a campaign training academy at a hotel in New Brunswick. For a week, we studied political campaigns with the best political consultants in the country. To this day, I remember one adviser scrawling “KISS” in large letters on a blackboard, which stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
I’ve since worked on many campaigns (including my own), and I can tell you that in politics KISS has the gravitational pull of the Death Star. Resisting is the right thing to do, but it feels impossible and can be fatal.
While KISS particularly dominates today’s Republican field, it hasn’t seemed to bear much fruit for anyone but Donald Trump (more on him in a moment). Last December, Rick Perry (now, out of the race) said of Hillary Clinton, “And this secretary of state, and this president of the United States, both did a miserable job. I would put it in the feckless foreign policy category.” Both Chris Christie and Rand Paul (they of the moribund campaigns) have also criticized Obama as “feckless.”
Here’s the dictionary definition of that word: “having or resulting from a weak character or nature.” The Republican candidates are conflating willful simplicity with good moral character. That sounds appealing in theory, but its hollowness immediately appears when you tap on their Iraq policies, where, as former senior Obama defense official Derek Chollet recently wrote in the Washington Post, there’s virtually no difference between their ideas and what Obama and Clinton have actually done.
“[I]t is seductive to trumpet solutions as ‘tougher’ or ‘stronger,’” Chollet wrote, “but Republicans are finding it is difficult to define a way forward, especially when they must first grapple with the ghosts of their past.”
The reason their policies are bankrupt and that they’re falling back on character attacks is that they don’t know what to do in a world that’s vastly more confusing than ever before.
There has been no more egregious example than Donald Trump, who this week on "60 Minutes" framed our foreign policy choices in Syria and Iraq as so simple they might as well be a game of Risk.
Of ISIS in Syria, he said, “Why aren't we letting ISIS go and fight Assad and then we pick up the remnants?” Of Syria, he said, “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let ‘em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” And of ISIS in Iraq, he said, “Look with ISIS in Iraq, you gotta knock 'em out. You gotta knock 'em out. You gotta fight 'em. You gotta fight ‘em.”
This was beyond slogans and bumper stickers. It is a foreign policy of bombast alone.
Out of the Republican field, it’s the most experienced candidate—Ohio Gov. John Kasich—who alone seems to go out of his way to repudiate Manichaeism, framing the challenges facing the nation as complicated and requiring experience and judgment rather than bombast.
Kasich alone seems to recognize that, contrary to the Death Star’s dictates, there’s political gold in the hills of complexity. He seems to see that Barack Obama’s unlikely victory in 2008 represented a repudiation not only of the Iraq War but of the broader impulse (apotheosized by his opponent, John McCain) to oversimplify matters.
Obama’s whole approach was in the context of the neoconservatives who took power in the George W. Bush administration, who never wanted to accept that we’d moved beyond the reassuringly Manichean simplicity of the Cold War. When Obama said he was “not against all wars, just stupid wars,” it was a courageous nuance beyond the black and white “global war on terrorism” framework.
During the 2008 campaign, when the economy collapsed, Republican nominee John McCain suspended his presidential campaign and flew back to Washington. Obama avoided that black and white response and stayed on the campaign trail. His choice was seen as measured, balanced, mature and professional by the voters.
The strongest moments of Obama’s presidency have also been when he’s rejected false simplicity. Remember the Ebola craze? Politicians like Rick Perry said the only option was for Obama to shut down air travel with West Africa. Here’s what Obama said: “What we’re seeing now is not an ‘outbreak’ or an ‘epidemic’ of Ebola in America. This is a serious disease, but we can’t give in to hysteria or fear. We have to keep this in perspective. Every year, thousands of Americans die from the flu.”
There is ample precedent in American history for complexity defeating simplicity. In 1788, at the Virginia convention in Richmond to ratify the U.S. Constitution, for instance, James Madison—an introverted intellectual more at ease with research and argument than politicking—had to face off against the revolutionary hero Patrick Henry, a brilliant orator skilled at pulling heartstrings.
Henry sought to turn the complexity of the document against it, mocking the Constitution’s “specious, imaginary balances,” and “rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances.”
Madison defeated this bluster precisely by embracing how necessary the Constitution’s complex checks and balances were to stability and progress. He won when delegates criticized Henry’s “endeavouring to prove oppressions which can never possibly happen.”
And the same could be said today. This time around, the American people could see bloviation for what it is. They could recognize that to get our arms around the new world order, we’ll need fine-tuned distinctions, multifaceted approaches, and our best minds concentrated on evidence and outcomes, rather than posturing and ideology.
And here’s the other thing about complexity: It recognizes that things change. We can’t know what the status of ISIS in Iraq will be next year, nor the strength of Assad’s government in Syria. What appears “feckless” in 2015 might instead look courageous in 2016, which is all the more reason to use scalpels rather than sledgehammers when describing issues and our policies to the American people.
2016 will be no ordinary presidential year, and our political campaigns shouldn’t be, either. Presidential candidates ought to create campaigns that respect the American people—that mirror the reality of the all-too-real challenges our nation will face in the years ahead.