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What Baseball Players Can Teach Politicians

It’s tempting for a mayor or a governor to swing for the fences, promising to solve every intractable societal problem. But leaders who go for what's realistically achievable are more likely to succeed.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. (Flickr/Michigan Municipal League)
Watching quite a few baseball games this summer, I couldn’t help being struck by the explanations that walk-off heroes give for their batting heroics. They all say about the same thing: “I didn’t try to do too much. I stayed within myself. I just took what they gave me and looked for an opening.”

It’s good advice, but if you see a lot of games you know that it’s honored mostly in the breach. Trying to do too much is exactly what most batters do these days. They swing for the fences and end up with a few extra home runs but a ton of strikeouts and a low batting average. Going all-out for home runs works for some exceptional sluggers, but for the average player it’s a mistake.

Taking what’s out there for you and not overreaching is the best recipe for success, not only in baseball but in a wide range of activities in modern life. Most of the time, it’s the best strategy for people who get elected to public office.

Back in the 2000s, I spent four years teaching in the school of leadership studies at a major university. I enjoyed it and learned a great deal but found myself puzzled by the primary focus of the curriculum: It was all about brilliant and courageous leaders who attempted the seemingly impossible, and somehow triumphed. It was about Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and, in this country, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It tilted to the liberal side; Ronald Reagan wasn’t part of the standard syllabus.

The longer I taught there, the more convinced I became that the crucial challenges of leadership in government and politics are those that visit themselves on leaders who are pretty much ordinary people, neither brilliant nor exceptionally talented. If I were asked to advise them (which I never have been), I would say don’t try to do too much — take what you’re given and see if you can do something with it.

In my experience, most politicians who become mayors or governors don’t pursue this strategy. They seek out the most intractable problems in their constituency and promise to solve them. Given a four-year term, they vow to fix underperforming schools, end gang violence and restore racial harmony. Like batters determined to swing for the fences, they strike out an embarrassing portion of the time.

American public life would be better off if education in public leadership were devoted a little more to showing the elected how to, as the athletes say, play within themselves. But there isn’t a great deal written on this subject. That kind of advice goes against most of the shibboleths that political candidates have learned to campaign on over the years.

ONE OF THE FEW RECENT POLITICAL LEADERS to advocate a strategy of knowing one’s limits was George Latimer, the highly successful six-term mayor of St. Paul in the 1970s and 1980s. Asked to give counsel to incoming mayors around the country, he made his advice short and succinct: “Don’t look for problems — look for opportunities." In other words, don’t start out by trying to achieve dramatic results in educational performance or closing the wealth gap. Start by finding some low-hanging fruit. Plow the snow. Clean the red tape out of the permitting process. Keep the buses running on time. Then maybe you can take on some of the cosmic problems.

More recently, another accomplished mayor, Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, who served from 2007 to 2015, offered a more detailed account of his successes, failures and lessons learned. Writing in the State and Local Government Review, he told of how he had fought sex discrimination, created an effective recycling program and built a new downtown theater, overcoming the opposition of much of the local business community.

Many of Becker’s prescriptions are familiar, even obvious: Foster broad participation in the community; pay close attention to the ultimate costs of any initiative. But much of Becker’s advice harks back directly to the Latimer philosophy. “Decide what can realistically be achieved, being ambitious but avoiding wasting energy on the pursuit of impossible dreams. … When basic services are delivered well … voters and taxpayers can see the results for the investment in government, and trust is built.”

For Becker, as for Latimer, governing within limits is closely linked to the notion of pursuing consensus and conciliation. Pick battles carefully. Cultivate your critics rather than disparaging them. In this respect, Becker is following in the footsteps of the iconic Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who said much the same thing a little more bluntly. Daley developed a reputation as an autocratic political boss, and at times he was that, but he was also finely attuned to the need for civic consensus. “Don’t get in any fights you can’t win,” Daley used to tell his acolytes. “Don’t get in any fights you don’t need to win.”

PERHAPS THE RECENT LEADER whose career best exemplifies all of these ideas is Jerry Brown, who was the youngest governor of California (1975-1983) and much later, the oldest (2011-2019). When Brown first became governor, he dreamed of remaking state government in dramatic style and almost immediately began running for president. He had some tangible accomplishments and won a second term, but by 1982 the voters were tired of him, and he was badly beaten in a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The Brown who returned to the Statehouse in 2011 at age 72 was a man fully prepared to implement the philosophy of limits he had once promulgated but failed to observe. He was a deal-maker in ways he had never been before. He held the line on questionable spending programs his fellow Democrats wanted to implement and pushed successfully for an increase in income and sales taxes that took the state from the brink of fiscal insolvency to a condition of stable economic health. When he retired at the end of his fourth term, he was arguably the most successful governor in modern California history and one of the most admired politicians anywhere in the United States.

It’s revealing to compare the later version of Brown with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office as governor of California in the recall of incumbent Gray Davis in 2004. Schwarzenegger had no patience with modest goals. “Every governor proposes moving boxes around to reorganize government,” Schwarzenegger said in his first State of the State address. “I don’t want to move the boxes around. I want to blow them up.” A year later he withdrew his reorganization plan with scarcely any of it enacted into law.

THERE IS NO FOOLPROOF FORMULA for succeeding in politics or government, and one can always find elected leaders who disdained restraint and conciliation and managed to push through an ambitious agenda. Margaret Thatcher is the matron saint of these leaders. She famously declared that she didn’t believe in consensus at all — that she was a “conviction politician.” As long as she had the votes to do what she wanted, she didn’t give a flip what the other side thought. She not only survived 12 years as Britain’s prime minister but implemented a whole array of free-market changes whose impact will be with Britons for generations to come. Of course, she could behave this way because she was operating in a parliamentary system, which gave her almost unlimited legislative authority; succeeding in this fashion in our competitive two-party environment is a much tougher task, and sometimes an impossible one.

Nevertheless, some recent American politicians have been determined to play it Thatcher’s way, and had some successes doing it. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s Republican governor from 2011 to 2019, took office promoting an unyielding anti-union and anti-regulation agenda, and got much of it enacted while essentially ignoring vehement Democratic opposition and surviving a bitterly fought recall election before voters unseated him in 2018. It’s fair to call Walker Exhibit A in the use of Thatcherite politics in America in this century. Since his departure, Republican governors in a few other states have pursued a similarly intransigent approach, with mixed success.

But it’s also fair to say that these are exceptions. Most of the successful political leaders of recent times have, like the late-career version of Jerry Brown, prospered by following the guidelines of Latimer and Becker, looking carefully for openings rather than setting out, like Schwarzenegger, to swing for the fences.

No one wants to take the romance out of political leadership. It’s instructive and often inspiring to study the careers of transformational leaders who take on the seemingly impossible and manage to achieve it. But if you are a leader endowed with only ordinary human gifts, operating in ordinary times, it makes more sense to act as if you are batting in the ninth inning of a tied baseball game: Take what they give you, look for openings and try not to do too much.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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