John Sears, Ronald Reagan’s one-time campaign manager, once said “discipline is nine-tenths of politics.” And, as Tevi Troy reminds us:
Candidate Reagan put Sears’ dictum into action, running a relentlessly focused communication operation that kept to its message of the day, often to the consternation of the reporters following the campaign. This approach continued into Reagan’s presidency. As the authors of All the President’s Spin put it: “Ronald Reagan’s administration broke new ground with its message discipline and image control.”
The same was true of George W. Bush. Troy, who worked in the Bush administration, recalls Bush’s chief-of-staff Andy Card saying “George W. Bush is the most disciplined person I have ever met: He’s disciplined in his exercise, his worship, and how he runs his White House.”
Even Bill Clinton was a disciplined politician up to a point. Troy notes that he “maintained strict message discipline – recall ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ – setting up a war room, and maintaining the standard of never letting a charge go unanswered for 24 hours.”
For all of his faults and despite his occasional fits of public pouting, President Obama seems disciplined, though maybe “willful” is a better description. Certainly no one can deny that his presidential campaigns were highly disciplined.
How does the current batch of presidential contenders fare under the John Sears test? Donald Trump’s campaign strikes me as the least disciplined ever, at least at the superficial level where my political mind operates.
There is probably a method to Trump’s madness, and I suspect he’s organizing well behind the scenes. But a disciplined campaigner Donald Trump is not. He will put the John Sears theory to a stern examination.
Ben Carson, by contrast, exercises extraordinary self-control. However, he hasn’t put himself in a position to talk about foreign policy at more than a very superficial level. Maybe there is just too much to learn.
Jeb Bush was something of a gaffe machine early on in his campaign. He seems to lack his brother’s discipline. Maybe this was just a function of being at a different stage in his life.
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina strike me as severely disciplined campaigners. However, we don’t know much about how they operate behind the scenes, and thus how disciplined they are when it comes to organizing.
Fiorina probably lacks the resources needed to put together a campaign juggernaut. As between Cruz and Rubio, I get the impression that Cruz has done a better, more disciplined job of organizing, but I could easily be wrong.
What about Hillary Clinton? She sometimes struggles when she speaks off the cuff. However, she has the discipline to keep such occasions to a minimum.
The first Democratic debate, for which she clearly prepared intensely, showed her at her disciplined best. The second debate confirmed how difficult it can be consistently to maintain discipline over the long haul, particularly at an advanced age.
There is only one Ronald Reagan.