For almost 30 years, I played baseball or softball. I played on teams that won league championships, and I played on teams that lost every game in a blowout. I’d like to brag about what a great athlete I was, but the truth is I was – adequate. Most of the time, I was “just good enough” to make the team. A utility player, the one you plugged in to a position when the starter went out, or was having a bad day. The reason I was put into games was because I was a good singles hitter. Over those same years, there was a type of player I came to loathe. If you’ve ever played, you’ve met them: The ones who “swing for the fences” every time. They were absolutely convinced they could hit a home run in every at-bat. We had a name for them: “Easy outs.”
So what does this have to do with political activists? In watching recent and past battles for progressive legislation, I’ve seen a lot of them “swinging for the fences.” They’re going out there convinced that their perfect idea is the only option, that they’re going to be able to whip it right through Congress. They deride the “incrementalists,” and the pragmatists as not being aggressive enough. Just like the players who were convinced they were home run hitters, they often go down swinging.
Hitting a home run requires a number of factors to line up. The ball has to be the right speed in the right place. You have hit it with the bat at the right speed, on the right spot of the bat, and at the right angle. Even the wind and weather conditions will have an effect. It’s hard to do. Why would anyone be convinced they could do it every time? They had some evidence to back their convictions. You see, in practice, they could hit the ball over the fence on a regular basis. I could even hit a few out in batting practice, though I was not a power hitter by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that hard – in practice. In batting practice, the pitches are put in the strike zone, at a constant speed. You were supposed to hit them. If you get into a rhythm, you can really light into it. The conditions are perfect for hitting one out.
So why isn’t it so easy in a game? Because the conditions aren’t perfect. If I’m a pitcher, I’m going to do my best to put the ball where you can’t get that chance. I’m going to vary speeds. I’m going to throw curves, sinkers, and sliders. I’m going change where I pitch the ball. I’m going to do everything in my power to make you go down swinging. Failing that, I’m going to see that if you do manage to connect with the ball, it’s not going to be a home run. It’ll be a pop-up, a grounder, or a fly ball. I might even walk you, because I know I can leave you stranded there on first base.
How does this apply to activists? How many people looked at opinion polling? It looked like a good percentage of the public were behind your stance. You looked at the 2008 elections, and how well Democrats did. You had a mailing list of like-minded people. You had blogs, and lots of commenters telling you how they wanted this, that they supported you. It looked like this was going to be a home run. Yes, so it did – in a practice session. Then the real effort started. Suddenly that wonderful idea that looked to be so easy to implement ran into the reality. Opponents weren’t giving you that nice easy path. They’re using the procedures and rules to delay, amend, and change things. Their groups are past masters at manipulating public opinion, and flooded the airwaves with counter-arguments. Groups appeared to protest – vocally and rudely – your program. Businesses and industry groups started throwing large sums at lobbyists and into advertising campaigns. What seemed to be so easy before you started now looked very, very hard. But you wouldn’t give up. You were, by g*d, going to get that program through intact! There was no way you could fail! Except you did.
What those activists haven’t learned is just what those batters who thought they could a home run every time didn’t. You can’t hit one every time. Even most of the time. You don’t go to the plate looking to hit a home run. You go looking for a hit. Sometimes, yes, you get a chance to nail it out of the park, but more often, you’re going to have to take what you can. Get a single, a double. Sacrifice fly if it scores a run. Take the walk. Move the base runners. Play good defense. You win a lot of games that way, and you win a lot of political victories that way as well. Yes, sometimes a pitcher will mess up and hang a nice juicy fastball right down the middle. Then you nail it. Sometimes your political opponents will make the same mistake. Take the shot if it’s offered. But the biggest mistake is thinking you can do it every time. Your opponents aren’t going to give you the chance if they can avoid it, and they know how the play the game as well.