One good thing about election season is that I drastically reduce my television viewing. When I do watch television, I am careful to stick with stations that don't run political ads. This pretty much limits me to American Chopper, E! News, and the NASA Channel. Granted, I hear about every time Paris Hilton stubs her toe, but in the short term, at least, that is preferable to hearing some vaguely sinister voice tell me, "Senator Balderdash is a poopyhead who is against grandmothers and homecoming dances."
I do still keep up with the news by listening to the radio or reading the newspaper. A few weeks ago, President Bush, and later his press secretary, proposed that the president's Iraq strategy had never been to "stay the course." "[W]e're constantly adjusting to tactics," Bush said in an interview.
I'm not going to discuss the merits of the claim. (That's what Google News is for.) However, hearing the word tactics, or its kissing cousin, strategy, in a news story always causes me to perk up. There was a time when I thought the phrase "strategy and tactics" was sort of like "hot and bothered" - two different ways of saying the same thing.
Then I met "Chesster."
My husband has played chess since he was in grade school, and he is an above-average recreational player who reads about and studies the game quite a bit. I don't play chess myself, but I know the rules, and after years of watching him play, I've picked up some of the lingo. I also know that he believes almost anything that is worth knowing in life can be learned over the chessboard.
It was under his tutelage that I learned the difference between strategy and tactics.
Strategy is a conceptual plan that lasts for a long time. It involves looking at your current position, determining where you want to be, and coming up with a reasonable procedure for getting there. In chess, it would probably be a plan that lasts longer than six moves. "Take control of the center" or "Get my rook to an open file" are examples of chess strategies. In real life, a strategy might be "Go to college and get a degree without bankrupting myself first."
Tactics are actions that can be calculated and are based on the situation at that moment. In chess, you would look at the position on the board, and decide how best to take advantage of it. Finding an opportunity to pin a piece so it can't move is a tactic, as is finding a way to force checkmate. The "white to move and win" chess puzzles that appear in newspapers or magazines are tactical problems. A real life tactic could be "Get a job that will pay me enough so I can take two courses each term without having to take out any loans."
Another way of looking at this, particularly in the political realm, is that strategies are ideas, and tactics are actions. Politicians constantly have to juggle strategy and tactics, in their campaigns and in their work. Some politicians can move deftly from one to the other. Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush were both comfortable with "big picture" strategizing, yet were able to take advantage of tactical opportunities that cropped up during their campaigns.
Increasingly, campaigns are fought on a tactical level, with hot button issues and attack ads ruling the day. The tactician's dream is to have his opponent make a mistake. The risk, of course, is that you could make a mistake, and then it all comes back to you. The strategic campaigns of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, where they focused on their ideas and their visions of the future, seem like a distant memory.