Winning the Political Game: Politics is More Like Baseball Than Football

A Washington Post reporter recently wrote that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had “the worst week in Washington” as he lost the fight to reauthorize provisions of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone data.

McConnell lost to senators who championed the competing USA Freedom Act.

So is McConnell a big loser as a politician?

Some smart person, I believe it was political columnist and baseball guru George Will, said that politics is a lot more like baseball than football.

What he meant is that if you lose a few football games the season quickly becomes unsuccessful. But if you lose even a lot of baseball games, you can still win the World Series. NFL teams play 16 regular season games. Major League Baseball teams play 162.

In politics you can lose a lot of legislative battles and public policy fights, and still be very successful. Of course, you can’t lose many of the big games – elections – or you don’t last long in politics. But many politicians bounce back even from election losses.

Some politicians are timid because they can’t stand to lose any fights. But that’s not the route to a successful political career. Here’s another insightful George Will quote: "Conflict avoidance becomes habitual. Risk averse politicians are constantly at risk. The rule regarding power is use it or lose it."

Tough losses, like McConnell’s defeat on the Patriot Act, are part of the political game. Politicians need to go big, take on tough issues, even if they lose half the fights.

Sometimes a sky-high approval rating or a landslide election win means a politician isn’t really very effective because he or she isn’t spending his or her political capital — isn’t taking on the tough issues that make a real difference. Political success means winning 50 percent plus one. Those wins are sometimes more satisfying than 70 percent wins. If things are going reasonably well in a state or a political subdivision, caretakers can be very popular. But they won’t take things to the next level, won’t have big accomplishments

So don’t worry about losing a few battles. Take on the big issues where popular opinion is 50/50. Remember that politics is more like baseball than football.