The Outstater: The ‘Rules’ of Politics

April 20, 2016

“The rules are the rules.” — House Speaker Paul Ryan

by Craig Ladwig

It should make you nervous to hear politicians cite the “rules” of politics. You start wondering what they are up to. For we all know that in politics there are no rules.

Gen. Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that war is the continuation of politics “by other means.” Mark that he did not say “by other rules.” He knew that neither war nor politics has any.

And Von Clausewitz was operating without benefit of the example of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Surely there were rules against that? No, Mr. Clinton was a politician.

Dick Lugar and Mark Souder were my political representatives at the time. Souder in the House voted against Clinton’s impeachment. Lugar in the Senate voted for acquittal. They had to take time away from the people’s business to teach us that politicians, even Democrats, are exempt from any rules.

If there were rules, they would be found in the closest thing we Hoosiers have to a rule book, the Indiana Constitution. Indeed, some years ago the officers of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation thought they read one there. It was Sec. 19, to wit, “An act, except an act for the codification, revision or rearrangement of laws, shall be confined to one subject and matters properly connected therewith.”

It is conceded that the case involved making laws rather than cuckoldry, however similar the two might be. In the end, the Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the foundation’s argument. The majority opinion in effect said that our state lawmakers only seem to violate Sec. 19 each session when they pass multi-subject legislation. According to the rule that there are no rules, you see, a violation would be impossible.

The closest thing to political rules may be found in the writing of Stephen Potter, the English humorist. Potter’s genius was in constructing “rules” for gentlemanly sports that employed gamesmanship, “the art of winning games without actually cheating.”

Is that a summation of modern political strategy or what?

Potter’s rules were designed to make an opponent feel that “something had gone wrong, however slightly.” If, for example, your opponent always shows up for a tennis match in traditional sharkskin whites, you step out in Bermuda shorts and black socks. If your opponent prides himself on being a fair sport, you wrongly call your own shots foul in hopes of getting “one up” on his guilty conscience. And so forth.

A favorite bit of Potter gamesmanship and one particularly applicable to politics was his contention that you could win any argument with, “Yes, but not in the South.” Potter promised that the ploy, with only slight adjustments, works in any argument about any place if not about any person.

One last illustration: When a politician complains about unfairness in the political arena, think of Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” fencing with the British naval officer. Sparrow, tired of what had become a ballet of swords, rudely trips his opponent. “That’s cheating,” the gentleman complains. “Pirate,” says Sparrow in both reply and explanation.

Substitute “politician” for “pirate” and you’ve got a grasp of our situation.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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