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The void of understanding

“The theme is leadership, but the subtext is betrayal.” <em>Philip Gould</em> on a great pollster’s

Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders

Stanley B Greenberg

Thomas Dunne, 512pp, £18.99

Stan Greenberg is a complex figure: one-third pollster, one-third progressive activist, one-third academic. It is in the tensions between these often competing roles that he finds his power and strength, but they also generate the contradictions that characterise his life in politics. It is the attempted resolution of these contradictions, and sometimes the failure to do so, that is the real story of this book.

Dispatches from the War Room travels through 20 years and five continents, and is based around Greenberg’s polling work for five political leaders: Clinton, Blair, Mandela, the former prime minister of Israel Ehud Barak and the former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

The theme of the book is leadership, but the subtext is betrayal – political projects doomed to fail as leaders break the cord of connection with the public that secured them electoral success, as they always do. For Greenberg, the process of betrayal can start at the very moment of victory. It is almost as if, once elected, political leaders make a kind of dash for freedom; liberated from the constraints of campaigning, they can now become what they really are. What Greenberg wants above all else is that public opinion, progressive project and political leadership fuse seamlessly in campaign and in governance. When this does not happen, as it invariably does not, he becomes frustrated and sometimes disillusioned, looking for reasons why. For him our leaders seem sometimes to sail in waters so deep and uncertain as to be almost unfathomable, reminding us of Michael Oakeshott’s “boundless and bottomless sea”.

You sense that the stubborn unpredictability of political leadership tests Greenberg’s rationalism to the limit. He posits explanations for the behaviour of the leaders he works with, but you feel that he is not fully convinced by them. In the end, political leaders march to the beat of their own drum, and Greenberg does not really know why. It is in this void of understanding that fears of betrayal fester.

The chapters on Bill Clinton show Greenberg on home ground. It is here that he made his most distinctive political contribution, through the now famous focus groups that he conducted in Macomb County, Michigan. I can still remember the exhilaration I felt on reading the series of American Prospect articles that followed them in 1990 and 1991. At last, someone seemed to articulate what I had felt for so long: that progressive parties, in my case Labour, in his the Democrats, had forgotten the needs of the hard-working majority, and allowed themselves to be corrupted by a kind of elitist extremism in which the last thing heard was the voice of the voter. This work influenced the nature of the first Clinton campaign, and many that followed. But the early Clinton presidency was fraught, starting with a lunge to a liberal agenda (precisely demonstrating the Greenberg point about early betrayal). After the disastrous midterm elections, Clinton in effect fired Greenberg and replaced him with Dick Morris and Mark Penn.

This was a moment of great personal betrayal for Greenberg. He had helped build the Clinton project, and now he was displaced as the president’s pollster by political advisers who, Greenberg believed, had no sense of project or purpose. This must have been the cruellest moment. In the book, he says that he moved on easily, but in truth for years you could sense his lingering anger with Clinton, and his feelings about Morris and Penn never abated, as is painfully evident in the chapter on Blair. Greenberg may not have forgiven Penn and Morris, but he is keen to heal the rift with Clinton. The crucial moment for him is Clinton’s endorsement of Barack Obama at last year’s Democratic National Convention, unifying former and future presidents and unifying Clinton with his real project, of racial reconciliation. This unity gives Greenberg the space to rejoin the political project he helped start in 1990, enabling him, in a sense, to come home.

If the Clinton chapters are about healing, the Tony Blair chapters are decidedly not. Greenberg arrived as Labour’s pollster – largely at my instigation – in 1995. By the time of his arrival much of the modernising work had been done, but he was genuinely part of the team, visiting at periodic intervals, and always seeming completely at home in British politics and at ease with a modernising, progressive Labour party leader. It was not until I read this book that I realised how little Greenberg understood Blair.

At the start, he thought that Blair was another Clinton, but he was not: he was always a leader in his own mould. Blair would hear Greenberg’s advice but often not heed it, leaving the American visitor frustrated. In part, this was because Blair had a sceptical view of polling: he wanted to know it, but believed it to be the background noise of a political decision, not its lodestar.

More fundamentally, they had different views of politics, Greenberg believing empathy and connection to be non-negotiable, Blair that policy and delivery were at the heart of politics – get those right and all else will follow. Their views on strategy were just as divergent. In his book, Greenberg says that Blair believed “narrative was strategy”, a view almost completely at odds with what Blair actually felt. For Blair, message and narrative were important (although not as important as argument) but entirely secondary; what mattered was strategy, which was an entirely different thing. For Blair, strategy was like a multidimensional chess game, in which policy, positioning and political objectives had to be connected in a layered, nuanced and often complex plan for the future. As Gordon Brown once said to me: “The one thing you can say about Tony Blair is that he always knows where he is going.” In Blair’s world, polling has a place, but it is secondary – strategy, policy, argument and leadership come first.

Greenberg believed that he and New Labour shared identical political aims, but in reality they did not. There was a moment in the early 1990s when it seemed as if the New Democratic and New Labour projects converged, but in truth the trajectories of the two projects were not aligned. The language might be shared, but the essential political landscape was not. For Greenberg, renewing the Democrats meant recapturing the party for the hard-working majority after two decades of liberal elitism and a conservative hegemony that had lasted since 1968. For Blair, modernisation meant renewing the Labour Party after 100 years of relative electoral failure and modernising a nation still trapped in the shadows of an empire-dominated past. Blair wanted to make an old country young again, not renew a nation still essentially youthful. This difference is profound: the very word modernisation means one thing in America, another in Britain. For Blair, fairness was always important but modernisation crucial, not because to be modern was more important than to be fair, but because only through modernising Labour, the nation and its institutions could the route to fairness be found. When Blair said “New Labour, New Britain”, he meant it not just as a slogan, but as the absolute heart of his political project.

It was this breakdown in communication, rather than any conflict over Iraq, which led to what Greenberg sees as his second personal political betrayal. Once again, ten years on from the first time, Greenberg was displaced by Penn. It was my job to handle this, and Greenberg saw it as an act of huge personal disloyalty, which it was not, given that I fought – successfully – for his continued inclusion in the campaign.

The last section of the Blair chapter shows Greenberg falling below his best, the healing and forgiveness of the Clinton pages gone, at least as far as Mark Penn is concerned. Penn may not be to everyone’s taste, but he deserves better than the treatment he receives in this book: it is simply unwarranted to say, for example, that his “tests were rigged”. Few in our world would doubt that Greenberg is a great pollster and a significant political figure, but progressive values should lead us to conduct our public discourse with decency and tolerance. That, too, is part of our progressive purpose. Thankfully, although this section is a very low point, the rest of the book rests on a higher plane.

Dispatches from the War Room is ultimately about Greenberg’s struggle to come to terms with the reality of political leadership, which so often seems to let him down. Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the optimism that seems to grow within him as he reflects more and sees qualities in leadership that are deeper, stronger and more compelling. He is not able to resolve the tension between the need to lead in politics and the need to listen, but at least he tries, through these pages, and also in his extraordinary life.

What is clear is that the conflict between public opinion and political leadership is an intrinsic part of modern politics, and that this conflict will intensify. We now live in a world where Google can say that data is God, and where the clamour for public participation will rightfully grow; this really is the century of empowerment. However, we also live in a complex and fragmented world, in which chaos is never far away, and in which the value of leadership will never be more prized.

The wisdom of the crowd should be balanced by the wisdom of leadership. We must trust the people, but we must also trust our leaders, and we must learn to do both at the same time. Advisers like me, and Greenberg, have our place, but it is leaders who face the cold reality of a world never more uncertain, never less predictable. Governing well is always difficult, and may not be popular, but we should not confuse a fall in public support with an erosion of political integrity. Leaders can let us down, but Greenberg shows that we in our collective scepticism can let them down, too. Betrayal works both ways.

Philip Gould was strategic polling adviser and political consultant to Tony Blair (1997-2007)

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit