History Is Clear: It’s Discipline That Wins Presidential Races

Thanksgiving approaches and it remains unclear who will emerge as the GOP presidential nominee.

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 31: The desk of U.S. President Barack Obama sits in the newly redecorated Oval Office of the White House August 31, 2010 in Washington, D.C. U.S. President Barack Obama will give his second address from Oval Office August 31, 2010 to mark the shift away from combat in the war in Iraq. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images)
The Oval Office (Photo: Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images)

As Thanksgiving approaches, it remains unclear who will emerge as the GOP presidential nominee. The standard methods of prognosticating have come up short in this year’s muddled primary field. But there may be another way to sort through the candidates and predict the eventual winner. In politics, the most disciplined candidate typically wins. As Ronald Reagan’s one-time campaign manager John Sears put it, “Discipline is nine-tenths of politics.”

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.”

Another politician who understood this message was George W. Bush. Early in my own tenure as a White House staffer, I vividly recall Mr. Bush’s Chief of Staff Andy Card saying that “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.” He was even disciplined in his reading, devouring 60 to 90 books a year and competing with adviser Karl Rove over who could read more books annually. The most important manifestation of Bush’s self-control came in the communications front. In her book Managing the President’s Message, Martha Joynt Kumar stressed this point, saying that “For President George W. Bush, message discipline was the signature of his candidacy, his presidency, and his White House staff”; “The discipline of the Bush team has become legendary”; and that “discipline is at the heart of the Bush communications strategies.” Ms. Kumar did not just repeat the word but also explained what she meant by it, writing that in the Bush White House, “Staff members hew to their course of deciding when and where they want to speak and who is going to talk.”

If a leader has discipline, it allows an organization to set priorities, use people and resources wisely, and manage limited time in an efficient and effective way.

Even candidates who lacked discipline in some areas needed to maintain it in others to be successful. Bill Clinton, despite his lack of discipline with food, women, and punctuality, did maintain self-control in areas that were crucial to his success. After Mr. Clinton drank too much on the campaign trail as a young politician in Arkansas, adviser Ron Addington told him, “I don’t know whether you can drink while campaigning. Don’t try it again.” Mr. Clinton didn’t.

Mr. Clinton also, like both Reagan and Mr. Bush, 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. On the other side of the ledger, while Mr. Clinton’s lack of self-control with women did not stop him from getting the Democratic nomination or being elected twice, it sure caused him a lot of problems that could have been avoided.

Those who lack discipline typically pay the price. Jack Kemp was a talented candidate who learned this lesson the hard way. In 1996, when Kemp was the Republican vice presidential nominee, he could not bring himself to study for his debate against Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore. According to Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke’s new biography of the late politician and football star, Kemp was creative in his excuses for not watching his opponent’s debate tapes, telling aides, for example that Monday Night Football was on.

As Barnes and Kondracke put it, “Kemp did not take his debate preparation seriously.” And it showed. When the debate took place, Kemp failed spectacularly. Presidential nominee Bob Dole, whose candidacy was on the line, barked out early on, “What’s going on? Didn’t he practice? Wasn’t he ready for this?” By the time it ended, Kemp had put on one of the worst performances in modern debate history. Kemp aide Wayne Berman tried to take some of the blame, saying, “We blew the debate preparation . . . I did not discipline Jack.” Berman was wrong: An aide can’t impose discipline. The candidates must impose it on themselves.

If a leader has discipline, it allows an organization to set priorities, use people and resources wisely, and manage limited time in an efficient and effective way. All of these things are at a premium in the modern presidential campaign. It would be presumptuous to declare unilaterally which candidate is most disciplined this go round. But discipline remains the characteristic to watch. Look carefully at the candidates for signs of self-command and focus – or lack thereof – to gain insight into which ones have a chance to serve as the GOP standard bearer, and potentially as the nation’s leader.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian, former White House aide, and former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services.  He is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Follow him on twitter at @tevitroy

History Is Clear: It’s Discipline That Wins Presidential Races