It’s been said many times that generals always prepare to fight the last war.
This makes sense when you think about it. “Last war” is a real, tangible thing with knowable problems and knowable achievements. “Next war” is uncertain, filled with unforeseen problems and unassessable risks.
Notably, the “preparing to fight the last war” phenomenon is particularly pronounced on the winning side. After all, “we” won doing things a certain way … why change? All one has to be is “better” at “last war” and you will win “next war” even more easily.
Losers, by contrast, often think creatively about “next war.” They, after all, did not fare well in “last war,” and so need to change the terms of engagement if they have much chance of winning “next war.”
The classic example of this phenomenon can be found in the lead up to the German invasion of France in 1940. Between 1920 and 1940 French military leaders constructed elaborate, complex and powerful defenses against what they perceived would be “next war” against Germany. However, those leaders decided that “next war” (WWII), would be a carbon copy of “last war” (WWI). The Germans, however, had a different idea, and crushed France fairly easily despite France’s profoundly powerful military.
Put another way, France prepared to fight a war its enemy decided not to fight, but failed to prepare for a war its enemy actually chose to fight.
It seems clear that the contemporary Republican Party, like the French between WWI and WWII, has gotten itself stuck in “last war.”
The party has been remarkably successful for the last 30 years in articulating a message grounded on two core principles: lower taxes (as a proxy for smaller government/self-reliance), and the culture war (moralistic claims that some ways of life were wrong or lesser, and that “good” Americans could only live in some ways). However, the tax claim is falling under its own weight: it’s one thing to lower taxes when they’re high, but quite another to lower them when they’re low and when government is out of money. Likewise, the culture war is failing: people are less worried about religiosity and gay marriage and marijuana smoking, to name a few examples, than they used to be.
But what was the very first bill introduced into the House of Representatives this session? Michelle Bachmann’s bill to repeal Obamacare—a version of a bill that passed the House 33 times in the last session of Congress before going precisely nowhere. Which is where this bill is going.
Talk about fighting “last war.” I imagine the birthers and the socialisters and the fascist state worriers about gun control leading to the loss of all human freedom are just waiting their turn to ply their craft on the political stage. (Oops: believers in the gun control equals the end of freedom are already on stage, I see.) Meanwhile, in two presidential elections in a row the electorate has been younger and more diverse than the Republican election model can cope with.
The question is: where is the Republican Party going? Having lost “last war” will they rethink what it takes to win and change the grounds of engagement? Or will they stand at their Maginot Line (look it up!) and keep insisting that the war has to be fought on their terms, even as their opponents sweep to victory after victory?
The future of the Republican Party hangs in the balance of the answer to that question.
As I quoted the New York Times in this post in February (when the Republicans failed to reauthorize the act, which has now died), Republicans rejected the Violence Against Women Act because:The main sticking points seemed to be language in the bill to ensure that victims are not denied services because they are gay or transgender and a provision that would modestly expand the availability of special visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence — a necessary step to encourage those victims to come forward.So think of this way: the Republicans decided it was better to protect NO women than to ALSO protect gay women, or transgender women, or undocumented women.If we weren’t talking about the contemporary Republican Party, this would be impossible to believe. Now it’s only expected. And vile.
So with Rick Santorum dropping out, and Newt Gingrich fading to irrelevance, perhaps it is time to think about the question: why did Mitt Romney prevail?
Several things pop to mind here in answer to this question. Notably, each has been a consistent part of Romney’s campaign—which is why people like me have been pretty consistent in stating we thought Romney would win the nomination even as the sturm and drang of the race unfolded.
1. Republicans have a tendency to choose “next.” What this means is that Republicans tend to choose whatever credible candidate finished second in the last primary, or a prominent Republican who gets into the race in the current election cycle. Thus Reagan followed Ford, Bush followed Reagan, McCain followed Bush II and Romney followed McCain. I don’t think this means Santorum will rise in 2016 if Romney fails in 2012—I imagine a Governor or somesuch will jump in. But in general, Republicans don’t choose protest candidates or newcomers.
2. Romney stood in the center of the ideological heart of the Republican Party. That Mitt Romney has twisted himself into a pretzel in order to stand at the conservative heart of the Republican Party is absolutely true. It is also true that he is standing there, unlike the even more conservative evangelical candidates. If you are a conservative Republican who is not evangelical, it’s Romney or … ? So Romney it is.
3. The evangelical candidates divided the Christian conservative vote. Much like 2008, the presence of several candidates all seeking to please the Christian conservative wing of the party divided that active and aggressively noisy group … leaving everyone else to vote for Romney. No Republican campaigning in a competitive primary since 1980 has won by being the most conservative candidate in the pool. Romney is much more conservative than most Americans, but not as conservative as most of the other Republican candidates. He got the votes of the non-evangelicals in the party.
4. Organization, organization, organization. People like me kept screaming about this one, and kept being ignored. But the fact is that presidential primaries are held in states—states that have lots of different laws about campaign organization, fund-raising, delegate selection, and much more. Candidates require vast organizations to overcome these disparate rules and to maximize their chances. Romney had such an organization. The others didn’t. And since I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no candidate in the modern era of campaigns (1972-present) has ever won a primary with a made-up-as-you-go organization. Nor did one do so this year.
5. Money. Money is crucial to every part of a campaign. Romney got more of it. The others got quite a bit less. As is typical of Republican primaries, the money went to the “next” candidate. Citizens United let the sugar daddies, Sherman Adelson and Foster Friese, keep Gingrich and Santorum in the game much longer than otherwise would likely have been the case. But they weren’t willing to spend as much as Romney was able to raise, and they had weak candidates to support.
6. Candidate quality. Sometimes in life you benefit from weak opponents. Romney did. A pizza executive with no political experience. A flame-throwing member of Congress. A staggeringly uncharismatic governor. A telegenic ex-governor who had, god help him, worked for Obama. A disgraced, thrice-married and known serial adulterer ex-Speaker of the House. A charismatic ex-Senator who seemed to specialize in making outrageous comments. And a (mostly) libertarian who didn’t really attack Romney in a party that has no interest in libertarians. Reagan v Bush or Bush v McCain it wasn’t. It was a good year for Romney to run. Rick Perry should have been formidable by institutional position. But he wasn’t in real life.
So now we shift to the general election. Let me introduce one theme I will come to again and again (I imagine): Presidents are elected in 51 state-by-state (with DC) elections, not by national vote. You will see lots of national polls. Ignore them. Look for the state-level information. That’s what matters in electing the President of the United States.
The Republicans have gained the House and stand poised to win control of the Senate. If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.
On the other hand, if they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all. And over the last several months, it has appeared increasingly likely that the party’s great all-or-nothing bet may land, ultimately, on nothing. In which case, the Republicans will have turned an unfavorable outlook into a truly bleak one in a fit of panic. The deepest effect of Obama’s election upon the Republicans’ psyche has been to make them truly fear, for the first time since before Ronald Reagan, that the future is against them.
One constantly hears that Republicans are the party of small government while Democrats are the party of big government. And, of course, the person making this claim usually makes it clear that small government is good and big government is bad.
Except, of course, this characterization of the two parties’ positions on government is factual twaddle.
Think about it this way: some parts of government can be termed the “helping people” parts of government (at least in intent). This part of government includes things like education, welfare, healthcare, food and drug inspections, parks, and even roads and bridges and other infrastructure. The goal—not always achieved—is to give people the tools they need to achieve their ambitions in life.
Another part of government might be termed the “hurting people” part of government. This part of government would include the military, the criminal justice system, fines and taxes and the like. It also includes punishing what some people see as immoral behavior. Note that I don’t think all of this is “bad.” Wars happen, after all, so we do need some kind of a military, and I am quite happy a lot of people who are in prison are there. It’s just that these parts of government are engaged in negative actions to shape or change behavior, rather than attempting to equip people as they build their lives.
So think about the difference in the parties this way: in general, Democrats want the “helping parts” of government to be bigger, and the “hurting people” parts of government to be smaller. (Unless, of course, they want BOTH to be bigger.) Republicans want the “helping people” parts of government to be smaller, and the “hurting people” parts of government to be bigger.
Note that each has elaborate ideological justifications for these stands. But both are happy with substantial governments. They just differ on how big each part should be.
Libertarians, of course, think both should be as small as possible. Which is why Ron Paul won’t win the Republican Party nomination for President.
So the Violence Against Women Act is up for renewal this year, and surprise of all surprises … not a single Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to reauthorize the act. Not a single one.Why? Well, the editorial in the New York Times puts it this way:The main sticking points seemed to be language in the bill to ensure that victims are not denied services because they are gay or transgender and a provision that would modestly expand the availability of special visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence — a necessary step to encourage those victims to come forward.And there you are. We might have to treat gay, transgendered and/or undocumented women with dignity and respect if they are abused, assaulted and attacked. So, naturally, the Judiciary Committee’s Senate Republicans have decided we can’t have the law at all.I am amazed any woman votes for the Republican Party, at least at the national level. Just amazed.