Carl von Clausewitz's concept of military genius--the quality which in his opinion distinguished the greatest battlefield commanders--is really a more academic version of Kipling's poem If, which I gave framed copies of to both of my sons when they went off to college. The battlefield is a chaotic place as well as a very dangerous one, and the commander is invariably deluged with information and conflicting advice. A military genius knows instinctively how to distinguish the significant information from the insignificant, to know when to stick to his original plan and when to modify it, rather than to give way to momentary floods of joy or despair. Political leadership demands the same qualities, particularly in times of crisis like those in which we live. Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower (not surprisingly), and Kennedy had those qualities; George W. Bush did not, and continually took refuge in certainty rather than take in any data at all. It is becoming clear that Barack Obama has them too. Were I to reread my posts over the last eight months or so, I would probably conclude that I need to work on them a bit more myself.
The most confusing picture of our political scene is the ceaseless drumbeat of hysterical abuse the President has to endure. With the major media now divided almost entirely into those who try to maintain at least a pretense of objectivity (like the major newspapers and networks) and those who have become completely partisan like Fox News, the negative voices, like the Confederate bombardment before Pickett's charge at Gettysburg (to which the Union artillery commander wisely decided not to reply), seem like the only game in town. Meanwhile, the actually correlation of forces remains very precariously balanced. Lacking a real liberal majority, the Democrats had to compromise key aspects of the health care bill all last year, and make a futile attempt to secure Republican support. Then came the catastrophe of the Massachusetts election, which I, like just about everyone else, took too seriously. The next day, Rush Limbaugh, speaking through one of his parody artists who channeled the President, declared it "the day that health care died." But he was wrong.
To understand the passage of the bill, we can usefully cite another great military theorist, the ancient Chinese Sun Tzu. "Men fight best on death ground," he wrote. "Put your own men on death ground." After they got over the initial shock of Brown's victory, the White House (above all, it seems, the President himself) and Congressional Democrats realized they simply could not afford this defeat. They made the necessary compromises, decided to use reconciliation, and emerged with the most significant piece of social legislation in 45 years. That was only the beginning, but it reversed the momentum.
Yet the Tea Party, if one focuses upon the media, still dominates the battlefield. . .or does it? This week the New York Times
and CBS published the results of a poll of tea partiers. They found, to begin with, that they do not represent a broad-based movement, but rather one well-to-do, white, and largely older faction of the Republican Party--a shrinking demographic, both absolutely and relatively. Their views are very different from those of other white folks, especially on the other side of the political aisle.
No one can read those figures without concluding that the Tea Party is an extremist movement within the Republican Party, one dominated by total hostility to the President and characterized by high levels of racial and economic resentment. I was delighted to see that only tiny numbers of white independents and Democrats could swallow the ridiculous idea that Obama's policies are favoring black and poor Americans, which they obviously are not. The Tea Partiers almost unanimously buy the even more ridiculous accusation that he is moving us towards socialism--the same accusation constantly leveled against Franklin Roosevelt, who also saved capitalism from its own excesses, just as Obama has done. There is, however, an interesting omission in the Times poll results. They do not give the total statistical breakdown between white Tea Partiers, other white Republicans, white independents, and white Democrats. The most recent data I can find with a quick search are two years old: collected by the Pew Research Center, they show white people almost evenly divided into Republicans, independents, and Democrats. If that is still true, then less than half of white voters think Obama is moving the country towards socialism, or that giving people benefits encourages them to remain poor, and more than half of white voters think President Obama shares their values. None of this suggests that the Tea Party will contribute anything positive to the Republican cause in November, or that the extreme right-wing candidates contending for Republican nominations in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere will face very strong prospects.
Let me say once again that those of us who expected Obama to replay the first two years of the New Deal were very naive. Neither his majorities, nor the depth of our economic crisis, justified such hopes. Nor can he draw on a cadre of activist experts, cabinet members, etc., dedicated to new economic policies. In any case, we should all understand by now that the process of restoring the proper role of the government and enforcing a reasonable degree of economic equality is going to take a very long time. In the meantime, the Republican Party is becoming its own worst enemy. Having failed to defeat health care with an all-out assault, it is now prepared to try the same strategy against financial reform--which is obviously a far more popular cause among the American people than health care reform was. Mitch McConnell is gambling that every Republican in the Senate will buy the lie that the Democrats' bill is designed to promote further bailouts--or that the country will go along if they do. He is surely wrong on the second count, in my opinion, and he may well be wrong on the first.
The Administration is also pursuing a long-term strategy abroad. The news from Afghanistan is worse than ever, but the nuclear summit and the arms control treaty with Russia were important steps towards a very different world, and very gratifying to this particular historian, who has been calling for such steps here for years. The Republicans are threatening to oppose the treaty as well--the exact step which turned their hero Barry Goldwater into a fringe candidate in 1964, after he railed against the Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets. The Administration has also made clear to Israel and the world that the policy enunciated by George W. Bush in his first Administration--that Israel will keep whatever land it wants in a peace treaty--no longer obtains. That will not magically open the door to peace but it will promote more debate in Israel.
Our new civil war is a peaceful one, for which we should be thankful. Had Lincoln in 1861 or 1862 been able to tell the northern people just how much the war was going to cost and how long it was going to last, he probably could not have secured their support. Because young people are not dying by the thousands, however, we can be more honest. We are slowly trying to undo the orthodoxy of the last thirty years, while facing an aroused and totally obstructionist Republican Party. It will take time both to develop new ways of thinking, and for the Republicans to learn the error of their ways. The President, by refusing to panic, has set a good example. Let us try to follow it.