Thursday, July 15, 2010

Know When To Walk Away

Thankfully, Tom Emmer's campaign seems to have realized the futility of continued engagement and is withdrawing from the battle over "Tip Credits" and minimum wage for restaurant servers. In politics as in life, one of the keys to success is picking your battles wisely. To paraphrase John Kerry, this was the wrong battle, at the wrong time, and the wrong place for Emmer.

In politics, being on the right side of a particular argument isn't nearly as important as the how the general public perceives the issue. In this case, the perception (I detest the use of term "optics" in political discussions) was a terrible one for Emmer. He may very well be right on the merits of his argument, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that this appears to be an issue pitting the Joannas of the world against the corporate big wigs from Krabby O Mondays with Emmer taking the side of "Big Business." That's not going to be a popular position anywhere, particularly in Minnesota.

And it doesn't matter how much Emmer, his campaign, or his supporters complain that the perception is inaccurate or unfair. It's out there now and no amount of continued effort is going to materially change that. Better to pull back, lick your wounds, and prepare to fight another day.

The good news is that seems to exactly what the Emmer campaign is doing. And in the big campaign picture, this is really nothing but a small skirmish that shouldn't have any significant strategic impact overall. However, that could depend on whether the Emmer campaigns learns the right lessons from this fight.

The first would be to not get dragged into battles over micro issues where the potential benefits are moderate at best and the costs of failure are high. The second is that if you do get dragged in and start to get bogged down, it's better to cut your losses and pull out early rather than to continue deeper into the morass and give your opponents an easy opportunity to make mountains out of molehills at your expense. I think there was a certain amount of stubbornness involved with Team Emmer on this issue.

On the big issues that matter, that stubbornness and unwillingness to cede ground in the fight is an admirable asset. But on the small stuff, it can prove to be a costly liability.

The Tip Credits issue was a setback for the Emmer campaign. Every campaign is going to have setbacks here and there along the way. The successful campaigns survive and learn from them. The unsuccessful campaigns continue to make the same mistakes and fall into the same traps until they experience a series of setbacks that ultimately help to doom their cause. Let's hope the Emmer people are good students.