When engaged in a negotiation, emotion plays a clear role. Debates are a form of negotiation. In the 3rd and final debate of this presidential season we see this dynamic at work. Sun Tzu spoke to dealing with opposing generals according to their weaknesses. John McCain is by his own accord a "fighter" and a "maverick". Is this a strength? Yes, and no.
Lets just say that a bulletproof vest (with ceramic plates) is an asset when in harms way, right? SURE. Well, is it still an asset when you can't reach your ammo pouch to reload, or if you fall into body of water and sink to the bottom? NO.
So, it is the question of "is it the right tactic for the situation?". Of course most of us make the mistake of falling back on our instincts when competing and either fight or run. History teaches us that neither of these is particularly helpful in advancing a position.
When negotiating, the ideal state is to have an angry opponent and to remain cool. Better still is for your opponent to think you are angry and to remain cool. So, in a political environment where citizens are tired of the constant attack-counter attack cycle and want to have their fears about the economy assuaged, being a "fighter" may not be ideal. Control of perception is a key concept in negotiating with Sun Tzu's principles. In the most recent debate, when people are being tossed about by the tumultuous financial seas and want a safe harbor the Obama campaign wanted to paint McCain as an "erratic, out of touch, unstable" individual. McCain played into their hands.
McCain's campaign wanted to frame Obama as one who "pals around with terrorists". They were not nearly as successful. McCain even promised at a rally to take Obama to task in the debate, but when given a direct opportunity could only offer a dismissive "I don't care about a washed-up terrorist". This erodes his credibility as a terrorist, but enhances it as a strategist.
In sport its usually not the guy who starts a conflict that the referee sees. For McCain to control perceptions of his temperment, he cannot take the bait of any goading. Sun Tzu says if an opponent has a "delicate sense of honor" you embarass him. Why, because he will become angry and attack a fortified position.
So, "Joe Cool" wins. War is costly, direct conflict is costly. Negotiating on position while angry is costly. It will cost each of them votes. As Gary says "a political campaign is a contest to see who can shoot themselves in the foot less."
Winning hearts, minds and votes comes down to two things: controlling perceptions and emotions.