Campaign Manager

Can a board game really simulate the grueling twists and turns of the campaign trail?

With the Republican candidates fighting state-by-state for the GOP presidential nomination, the winner may be decided not so much by the best candidate as the best campaign manager. Most of us will never have the chance to ride the campaign bus, but we can play Campaign Manager 2008, the board game of presidential electioneering. And for just $29.99, you won't have to suck up to Wall Street bankers or union bosses for campaign contributions.

True, the game is set in 2008, with Obama and McCain as the dueling candidates. It is unlikely that the Republican will again field a vice-presidential candidate from an alternate universe where Alaska annexed Siberia and Obama really was a Muslim. Nonetheless, the Democratic candidate is the same in 2008 and 2012, while the Republican candidate will likely face many of the same polarizing social issues and fight for the same key states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, as McCain did.

But first, let's briefly describe Campaign Manager 2008, which won an International Gamers Award (an important consideration if you plan to appeal to the geek vote). The game was designed by Jason Matthews, a former Hill staffer and now director of public and congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Campaign Manager blends the fun of a card game with the intricate strategizing of a presidential campaign. The game consists of 20 battleground states (the other 30 are considered locked up by either camp), each represented by a big cardboard rectangle. Four of those states will be in play at any given moment. Each state has a certain number of voter groups (three for a small state such as New Hampshire, versus five for big states like Ohio) that are depicted by circles on the rectangle. Placing a blue or red wooden token in the circle signifies that it has gone Democrat or Republican. Whichever candidate is first to capture all the voter circles takes the state and its electoral votes. And, of course, like in real life, the victor is the first candidate to cross the 270-electoral-vote finish line (both candidates need about 115 votes from the battleground states to win).

But collecting voters isn't that easy. There are two umbrella issues in each state, labeled "Economy" and "Defense." One of those two will always be the primary issue. To win a state, a candidate must win all the voters, and the voters must all identify Economy or Defense as their primary issue.

Candidates win voters in Campaign Manager by playing cards from a Democrat or GOP "event card" deck. From a deck of 45 cards, each player chooses 15 cards for a play deck, from which he will randomly draw during the game. Thus, players can tailor their cards for a targeted strategy, but it also locks them into that strategy. For example, every state has two ethnic or identity groups, such as Women, Latinos, Evangelicals, and College Graduates. Filling your play deck with demographic cards for those groups can garner large numbers of voters, but only in states where those groups are present, so a Catholic card is great for Michigan but useless for Minnesota. Or, there are Economy and Defense cards that snare voters in any state, but only a few at a time. A few are "negative messaging" cards (which should have Karl Rove's portrait but don't) that offer a big payoff in votes, but risk a backlash that helps the opponent.

Though these are abstract game mechanics, they do capture the feel of an election campaign. Candidates end up choosing -- and being locked into -- a strategy at the beginning of their campaign. You emphasize an issue, be it unemployment or the Afghan war, and then attempt to rally voters around it. Because you can never be sure if you'll draw the card you need at the right time (better hope you have the Jewish card if Florida is one of the four states in play), and also because you never know what cards your opponent has at that moment, flexibility and resourcefulness are everything. Every candidate has a campaign plan, but it's the true measure of a candidate in how he reacts when things go wrong.

Campaign Manager offers many vital lessons for the GOP candidates of 2012. I'll distill a few:

First, you need to choose a strategy, which means deciding who you are going to woo and who you are going to antagonize. Judging by how the GOP hopefuls are prostrating themselves before the extreme conservative faction of their party, it seems like they have made their choice. But is this strategy a solid move or will it backfire?

Playing as the Republican candidate in a session of Campaign Manager, I opted to fill my card deck with Issue cards, like "Reform, Prosperity, Peace," that would garner small dollops of voters in many states. My plan was to appeal to a broad swath of voters across many states. My opponent chose the "Si Puede" and "Women for Obama" cards, which harvested lots of votes in Florida and Ohio, and ultimately helped win him those states and the election. Lesson learned: Just as the Pentagon prepares to fight a spectrum of missions from all-out war to peacekeeping, so too one's political arsenal has to be broad, but still focused enough to win specific niches.

Second, there is no such thing as a purely offensive or defensive strategy. All strategies must mix attack and defense. Whatever you plan on doing to your opponent, there's a good chance he's already doing it to you (so do it to him first). Romney has been aiming plenty of attack ads at his rivals, but he also must endure attacks on his record and his riches. The key to victory is balancing pursuit of your strategy with blocking his. There is no room for sentimentality. Losing Oregon might be embarrassing for the Democrats, but if Indiana has more electoral votes, go for the Corn Belt. Much like chess, sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece for a larger prize.

Third, like football, politics is a game of inches, as evidenced by the constant counting and recounting of how soon Romney will lock up enough votes to secure the Republican nomination. You have to be prepared to grab a few votes here, a few votes there, and hope they eventually deliver you victory. Perhaps the better analogy is the punch and counter-punch of boxing. Playing the Democrats in one game, I picked up voters in Ohio but during my opponent's turn, he'd swing them back toward the Republicans. Back and forth it went. If politics were nukes, Ohio would have been slag. Though I eventually won the state, I'm not sure the voters did.

Fourth, negative campaigning works. Even if there was a backlash, the overall outcome in Campaign Manager tends to favor the person who drops nasty cards like "Obama, Is He Ready to Lead?" In one game, my Democratic opponent took the high road and eschewed negative ads. Untroubled by such scruples (or blessed with a conservative realism), I played "Raising Taxes isn't Patriotic" and "Obama, Is He Ready to Lead?" cards. The Obama camp retained the moral high ground. The Koch brothers now have Cabinet seats.

Finally, be flexible. When Clausewitz spoke of the "friction of war," he must have been thinking of politics (which is truly war by other means). In Campaign Manager, things go wrong all the time. You don't draw the card you need, or your opponent has a card that you can't counter. Your initial choice of cards commits you to a certain strategy, and it is inevitable that it will prove deficient in some way. So be prepared to make the best of a bad situation.

Even if Romney does win the nomination, he will be facing an experienced and prepared Obama campaign. Mitt might want to pick up a copy of Campaign Manager. He'll need all the help he can get.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


The Road to Hell Is Paved with Viral Videos

For all its goodwill, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 film is dangerous propaganda, pure and simple. It's not a call to make a notorious celebrity out of Joseph Kony -- it's a call to war.

Click here to see photos of the evolution of the LRA. 

When and how so many Americans, young people in particular, were convinced, or convinced themselves, that awareness offers the key to righting wrongs wherever in the world they may be is hard to pinpoint. But whatever else it does and fails to do, Kony 2012, the 30-minute video produced by a previously obscure California- and Uganda-based charity called Invisible Children that seeks to "make Joseph Kony famous in 2012" so that this homicidal bandit leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa will be hunted down and turned over to the International Criminal Court, illustrates just how deeply engrained in American culture this assumption has now become.

As a film, as history, and as policy analysis, there is little to be said for Kony 2012 except that its star and narrator, Jason Russell, the head of Invisible Children, and his colleagues seem to have their hearts in the right place. But this do-good spirit is suffused with an almost boastful naiveté and, more culpably, an American middle-class provincialism that illustrates beautifully the continuing relevance of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. At one point, Russell's commentary over a scene of a center in a northwestern Uganda town where children who have fled their villages for fear of LRA attacks are seeking shelter is "If [this] happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek," says Russell. Russell's argument is that the rise of global connectivity means that we are all "living in a new world" of plugged-in citizens who can change the world through the new modes of activism that Kony 2012 exemplifies -- earlier in the film he trumpets the fact that there are more people "on Facebook than were on the planet 200 years ago." But Russell's is a bogus globalism: His film basically ignores the world outside North America, where the people he is trying to mobilize live, and central Africa, where Kony and his victims are.

And whatever Russell may imagine, there is nothing new about that binary view at all. To the contrary, if the narrative structure of Kony 2012 is reminiscent of anything, it is of a tried and true paternalism that the missionaries milked for all it was worth when they returned to the metropole from the outposts of the British and French empires in which they were  working. Rather than trying to inspire, inform, and mobilize kids through the efficiencies of Facebook to care about faraway tragedies and needs, the missionaries had to content themselves with the largely retail work of mobilizing the faithful. The film is full of Russell's techno-utopian pontificating about connectivity turning the world upside-down, transforming politics, and instilling on a mass scale an ethic of borderless caring -- a message underscored by Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children's "director of idea development," who told a reporter that the film had created "a tipping point" in getting young people to care about something that did not affect them.

But unless you truly believe that "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan -- the Canadian futurologist who coined the expression "the global village" more than half a century ago -- kept insisting, then what Kony 2012 exemplifies is not new thinking but a new delivery system for the humanitarian wing of the old imperial enterprise, in all its stunning condescension toward the Global South, its sense of entitlement, and not just its contempt for both historical and moral complexity and ambiguity, but its actual reveling in that ignorance.

In fairness, Russell has made no secret of this. The film "definitely oversimplifies the issue," he recently told an interviewer. "We made it quick and oversimplified on purpose." Russell insisted that the video was "not the answer" and that Invisible Children wanted people who had seen the film to "keep investigating … to read the history." The problem is that everything else in Invisible Children's advocacy campaign, from the T-shirts and bracelets that read "Kony 2012" to the group's plan to "Cover the Night" on April 20 with posters and hortatory slogans such as "Stop at Nothing" and "One Thing We Can All Agree On," is equally reductive. Make that simple-minded (not just oversimplified) in the literal sense of the term. But how could it be otherwise in a campaign that deploys the worst and most manipulative tricks of advertising with the stated goal not of making famous the context in which Kony and the LRA have committed their terrible crimes, but rather to "make Joseph Kony famous."

Russell and his colleagues seem to believe that because their goal is not to make Kony famous so as to celebrate him, but instead "to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice," that this justifies the fact that they don't need to explain anything complicated to the young people they are trying to mobilize. Albert Einstein once observed bitterly that "he who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him a spinal cord will suffice." If one watches the music-video-style evocation in Kony 2012 of crowds of young people joyfully mobilizing en masse to demand Kony's arrest, it is quite hard to believe Invisible Children's claim that their campaign encourages deep thinking -- or, frankly, any thinking at all -- beyond the expression of moral outrage. In the end, this is Kony 2012's deepest flaw. For what it is actually peddling (under the flag of grassroots activism and a universal ethics of caring) is little more than a cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge.

This is a fundamentally childlike view of the world. But even by the standards of the contemporary United States, where feeling and the instinctual is raised high above reason -- a view encapsulated in author Malcolm Gladwell's claim that "there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis" -- and the child's eye view is held by many to be more discerning than the adult's, Kony 2012 is an extreme version of the idea. The early part of the film, after a few opening bits of technophilia about global connectedness, is followed by Russell sitting down with his young son, Gavin, to "explain" to him what "the war's about and who Joseph Kony is." He does this, and it makes for painful viewing -- a politically correct catechism in which it is unclear whether it is Russell or his son who is the more infantile. "What do I do for a job?" Russell asks. "You stop the bad guys from being mean," Gavin replies.

This might be written off as a relatively harmless narrative device were the rest of Russell's explanation to his viewers more nuanced, which is to say, more adult. But Kony 2012 is rhetorically seamless in that it delivers all its argument at the same level of maturity as Russell exhibits in his conversation with Gavin. Joseph Kony is the bad guy, and it is up to the good guys -- Russell, the Facebook millions, the U.S. military, and you -- to stop Kony. Nothing more, it seems, needs to be said. One more military intervention by the United States in the name of human rights, with all the imperial echoes that go with it? No problem in such a good cause. Ugandan history? Some other time, perhaps. The context of Kony's rebellion? Too complicated, at least for now. In short, nothing must be allowed to get in the way of building a movement, getting ready to put up posters, and pressuring the celebrities and politicians, or "policymakers" and "culture-makers," as Russell calls them in the film, to find a way to arrest Joseph Kony.

Here, too, Russell's choice of whom to try to influence is revealing, for the infatuation with celebrity, the worship of (American) power, and the refusal of politics is at the core of the campaign. It allows Russell to lump together Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, and Rep. John Boehner in the list of policymakers he wants to influence (U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are the only non-Americans on the list) with Lady Gaga, Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg among the culture-makers. (Justin Bieber, a Canadian, is the lone non-American on the culture-makers list.)

Again, in a film that treated its audience as adults, rather than as children or the recruits Einstein evoked, joyfully marching in rank and file, Russell would have had to pause to ask himself hard questions, such as: What might be the risks to Uganda's civilian population if the U.S. government were to give aid and more advanced military equipment to the Ugandan military to track Kony, thus strengthening a regime in Kampala whose hands are anything but clean -- as anyone who was in eastern Congo during the Ugandan intervention there in the late-1990s can attest? And as they say in the military, in war, the enemy gets a vote. At present -- though one would never know this from Russell's film -- Kony and the LRA are a largely spent force. But if a new campaign against them were launched, what would their response be; what crimes would they commit? Russell can talk all he likes about "arresting" Kony, but what Invisible Children is actually calling for is "war" -- without acknowledging that in war there are invariably unintended consequences. The lesson of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- which is that hoping for the best is not a plan -- does not seem to resonate with Russell at all.

Given these confusions, the challenge after watching Kony 2012 is not finding things in the film to criticize, wince at, and object to, but rather to find something that is not an intellectual or political embarrassment. Comedian Jon Stewart may tease the media for being jealous of the film's success, but his mockery misses the point: It is popular not because it is true, but because it is infantile, lowest-common-denominator activism. And in this culture, at this time in history, you are not likely to lose any money trafficking in that.

Still, it is understandable that there are many intelligent people who concede at least some of these faults of Kony 2012 but nonetheless defend the project as useful and worthy of using consumerist means to channel young people's energies away from that consumerism. The problem is that while self-evidently it is worthier to care about Joseph Kony than the Kardashians, caring by itself is not enough -- at least if the idea is that this caring should impel people to act and, more importantly, demand that their government act. To do that demands something more than actually knowing that Joseph Kony is an evil man and peddling the fantasy that, if he can be arrested, it will prove that, as Russell puts it, "the world we live in has new rules" and that "the technology that brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends." And it is this deeper knowledge that Kony 2012 seems to have no interest in communicating, even though, presumably, Russell and his colleagues could impart it if they chose to.

Officials of Invisible Children are on record as admitting that, yes, in Kony 2012 they kept the thing simple, but they insist that simplifying is not always a bad thing. Because of their good intentions, this claim may at first appear credible. But if we call what they are peddling by its right name -- propaganda -- their campaign looks very different indeed, for propaganda is propaganda, no matter how worthy the cause, however and in whatever form it comes in. That Russell and his colleagues seem so blind to how dangerous this is suggests that the old adage of the road to hell being paved with good intentions is as alive and well as ever, and, in this case, flourishing on YouTube.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images