Iron Rule of Politics

By Mark Shields

June 4, 2016 4 min read

Having worked, as a younger man, in three losing presidential campaigns and having been lucky enough to cover the past 10 presidential campaigns as a journalist, I have been forced to learn a few semi-iron rules of politics that might even be helpful in trying to understand our bizarre presidential year of 2016.

The most reliable test I know for determining whether a political party is growing or shrinking is whether that party (or its candidate's campaign) is busy seeking out and welcoming converts to its cause or whether, instead, it is devoting time and effort to uncovering within its ranks any heretics and then banishing them to some outer darkness.

Recall 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign was openly — and successfully — courting and enlisting so many converts, who were then greeted as "Reagan Democrats." In his own 2008 victory, Democrat Barack Obama was able to convert many Republicans, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (today the Libertarian Party's nominee for vice president) and President Reagan's last White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein.

By contrast, hunting down heretics — outing anyone on your own side who has dared to deviate in any way from a rigid party orthodoxy — can be emotionally satisfying for the heretic-hunters, who have publicly demonstrated their own purity even if the cost could be their party's losing on Election Day.

It's really pretty simple: Politics, in the final analysis, is a matter of addition, not subtraction. A political party or a national campaign is not some private club with its own special admissions test. No, a winning political party or presidential campaign — which is composed of a lot of people who agree on much more that matters than they disagree on — is, by definition, a coalition.

Donald Trump, Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, does not appear to grasp the part about politics being a matter of addition and not subtraction. He wastes both precious time and goodwill indicting and condemning Republican "heretics" who are guilty of nothing more grievous than failing to uncritically embrace Trump and all his controversial, often-shifting public positions.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, is the GOP's most prominent Latina officeholder. National polls consistently show Trump running very badly among both female voters and Latino voters. Martinez, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Mexico and who had been a prosecutor along the border, branded Trump's June 2015 allegation that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals "completely and unequivocally wrong." She has also criticized as unrealistic and irresponsible Trump's vow to force Mexico to pay for the wall he has pledged to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Apparently still smarting over Martinez's criticism and choosing to ignore the venerable political maxim "Don't get mad, get even," Trump, campaigning at his Albuquerque rally, got publicly very mad and wrongly charged that "Syrian refugees are being relocated in large numbers in New Mexico" when, in fact, only 10 Syrian refugees during Martinez's two terms have come to New Mexico. In her state's biggest city, he dismissed her as a failed governor. Why?

How does such a seemingly unprovoked outburst against a fellow Republican — who is a Latina — help him win the White House? Or is his tough New York skin really so paper-thin? Or does the rookie candidate Donald Trump not understand that in the final analysis, winning politics is a matter of addition, not subtraction?

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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