Friday, October 19, 2018

“Keep It Sold!”

     While I was in military engineering, I learned things about the necessities in long-term contracting I hadn’t previously suspected. Many engineers are uninterested in such things; they prefer to keep their heads down and concentrate on technology. However, at least two entirely non-technological things I learned during those years have proved to be important in the seemingly unrelated field of politics.

     The typical defense-contracting company is bifurcated. On one side, which where I worked was called the Projects side, are the engineers who actually design, build, and support the product. On the other, which where I worked was called the Programs side, are the people who deal directly with the military bureaucracy about trivial matters such as deadlines and money.

     At my shop, Projects-side engineers were often heard making disparaging comments about the Programs-side people. Very few of them aspired to go from Projects to Programs. Relations between the two groups were often chilly, even strained. You’d almost suspect them of lacking respect for one another.

     Yet Programs’ activities are vital to the company. It’s their job to win contracts for the company, to negotiate prices, payment schedules, milestones, deadlines, and the many associated details that go along with contracts that extend several years forward. Granted that unless the Projects people turn out a good product that the customer approves, the Programs folks would have nothing to sell, nevertheless unless Programs could win the contract in the first place and keep the customer committed to it throughout its term, the engineers on the Projects side would be out of work.

     It’s the emphasized clause above that’s much on my mind this morning.

     It’s been said, and truly, that anything worth buying must be sold – i.e., that salesmanship is an essential element of all commerce, regardless of specifics. When the thing being sold exists only as a concept when the customer-vendor conversations about it begin, there’s a lot more involved than when the customer can simply point at an item on a shelf or in a catalog and say “I want that one.” Moreover – and you may find this difficult to believe, Gentle Reader, but I assure you it’s true – a customer that must wait for what it’s ordered often changes its mind in the interim. It might want the product to possess features it hadn’t originally ordered. It might want to remove features in the name of cost savings. It might change its mind about whether it can afford the product at all.

     In a monopsony situation – i.e., where you only have one customer and can never have another – you must take all such possibilities very seriously. Thus, winning the contract is only the start of your salesmanship. Thereafter, you must keep it sold: you must maintain the customer’s commitment to the product and manage any changes to it the customer might demand. The longer the contract is expected to persist, the more arduous and important it is to keep it sold.

     Several defense contractors have failed, or have succumbed to hostile takeovers, because their Programs offices couldn’t keep important contracts sold. It was an important aspect of the “defense shakeout” years, during which several seemingly invulnerable companies fell by the wayside.

     Now let’s talk politics.

     The ascent of Donald Trump to the White House was a political experiment. The American electorate decided to take a chance on this brash outsider, in part because we liked what he was saying and in part out of disgust with the political Establishment. Trump, be it plainly said, had baggage: three wives, a number of bankruptcies, his reality-television venture, and a reputation for sharp dealing that wasn’t entirely undeserved. But he had an edge over Hillary Clinton that Clinton could do nothing about: he hadn’t disappointed us yet. So we took a chance on him.

     So far, that chance has proved well taken. But Trump, a veteran of a field in which long-term contracts are the rule, is as aware as any defense contractor that it’s vital to keep the customer sold. In the American political milieu, that requires more than on-the-job performance.

     When those who want you disgraced and deposed work as tirelessly as do Trump’s adversaries, keeping the electorate sold on him and his agenda requires a vigorous Program of counteraction. In effect, Trump must keep winning the presidency even as he wields its powers. He does this in several ways:

  • His “tweeting;”
  • His many public rallies;
  • His other public activities;
  • His support for other Republicans.

     And happily for the United States, which has already benefited greatly from the Trump agenda, it’s working well. It might even deliver him the allegiance of those Congressional Republicans who’d been dubious or outright opposed to him. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was recently queried about his turn in favor of Trump and his agenda. The senator replied “I go by the results,” by which he was taken to mean Trump’s economic and foreign-policy successes. I have an uncanny suspicion that this long-term Washington insider also looked at the success Trump has had at keeping the electorate sold on him – a success that has also strengthened McConnell’s position.

     The product might be terrific, but it still needs to be sold – and when your competitors are willing to do anything whatsoever to defeat you, you must keep selling it, day after day, until the customer can’t even imagine backing away from its contract with you.

     The American political environment has been changing these past fifty years. While the word populism has only recently been important in political discourse, the phenomenon has swelled steadily ever since the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Smart politicians have been attuned to it. No one who seeks elevation in national politics can afford to ignore the currents and clamors that in recent years have coursed through the body politic.

     The Framers were determined to dampen the importance of “faction,” by which they meant pretty much exactly what we suffer today. Of course, our factions are a lot larger than theirs, in consequence of the nationalization of practically every political or para-political question. Moreover, the passions that animate our factions are a lot hotter than anything Madison ever had to confront.

     That might be unfortunate. I think it is, myself. But it’s how things are at the moment. A successful politician with an agenda about which he’s sincere must cope with it. He can win election. He might win re-election despite an indifferent record in office. But he must keep the electorate sold on himself and his ideas.

     Donald Trump, the 45th President of these United States, grasps that perfectly, and our nation is fortunate that he does.

1 comment:

Kye said...

Our country is fortunate that for the first time in decades a president puts America ahead of his party and himself. MAGA Vote!