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.