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Obama & My Mother’s Coalition Strategy

“Coalition” is a word that brings with it mixed reactions. Among academicians, there has been some wonderful work done on coalition theory.  In the world of practice, coalitions are often seen as a necessary political tool to achieve particular ends.  Leaders pushing agendas treat coalitions as nuisances they need to put up with rather than a mechanism to establish a cooperative enterprise. Successful coalitions are put in place before the fact. They are part and parcel of an ongoing process. Unsuccessful coalitions are often a weak afterthought and put in place after the fact.

Imagine for a moment the differences between the coalition mobilized by George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War and the one mobilized by George W. Bush for the War in Iraq.  Bush, Sr. understood that coalitions are necessary for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Coalitions enhance the legitimacy of your effort.  When you have a coalition, your effort is seen as more legitimate.  Obviously the more people who rally around a cause, the more legitimate the cause.
  2. Coalitions help overcome resistance and spread the risk.  The more people you have on board, the less any one party has to lose.

George W. Bush Jr. engaged in coalition building as a token exercise which he felt compelled to do. He never totally appreciated  the legitimizing utility of a coalition, always fearing that coalitions would undermine his unitary effort.

There are two reasons why leaders don’t form coalitions

  1. They are afraid of what economist’s call the “free rider”—the individual who will do absolutely nothing, and in fact, may become a disruptive Trojan horse who will destroy the coalition from within.
  2. They feel that the compromises aren’t worth it.

When leaders find that these conditions exist, they will proceed to mobilize some while excluding others.  The problem is–what do you do when this mobilization fails? Can you go back and re-invite those you excluded the first time around? Maybe, but maybe not. In the best of all worlds, you can renegotiate and achieve a compromise that you previously didn’t have. But, in a realistic world, governed by ego, self-interest, and hurt feelings, a new invitation in the context of not being invited the first time is unlikely to yield a cohesive coalition.

I remember the adage my mother used to say–better to invite a lot of guests and hope that some will go home early rather than have a few guests and a number of angry people who resent that you didn’t invite them.  It seems to me that the recent healthcare summit proved my grandmother right.  Big coalitions can be whittled down to small coalitions, but it is harder to make small coalitions into big ones.

You can’t coalesce after the fact.

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