Advocacy: To Win, Play Offense as well as Defense

I was meeting recently with people at the The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice. We were discussing the merits of advocacy oriented towards rapid response vs. proactively taking the offensive. In a world of limited resources, an advocacy organization must decide where it places its attention. If the majority of the organization's focus is on responding to issues and opportunities as they arise -- such as new bills introduced or emerging legal tussles -- it may not have the wherewithal to maintain focus where it can have the greatest wins.

Back in the 1980’s Ronald Reagan's former Attorney General Edwin Meese worked with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and advocacy organization, to create a vision for how to systematically move the legal climate in America further to the right. He drafted a document – now known as the “Meese Memo” – that outlined what it would take to fulfill that vision: appoint conservative judges, win key litigation and develop conservative constitutional scholarship among other ideas. The Meese Memo galvanized the conservative legal community and now, over 30 years later, much of the Meese Memo has come to pass.

Over the long haul, an advocacy organization will lose out if it biases too strongly towards fast response, playing the defensive role. The urgent will crowd out the important. For battles that can only be won through preparation and planning, the victor will be the one with a long-term vision and the discipline to achieve it.

The Brennan Center under its current leader Michael Waldman has shifted towards the offensive, and has set its sights on achieving a select few goals with the potential to create long-term, widespread impact. With this disciplined approach they have what it takes to win.