In 218 B.C., during the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome, the Carthaginian Hannibal, having crossed the Alps, won the first of a series of victories against the Romans. As was their custom, the Romans appointed a dictator, Fabius Maximus, to deal with the emergency, and he decided to avoid battle and let Hannibal wear himself out in the Italian countryside. Rome grew weary of this strategy and removed him in time for the 216 campaign, and the Romans promptly suffered the most disastrous defeat yet, a double envelopment at Cannae. In desperation they recalled Fabius, and he resumed his strategy of keeping close to Hannibal while avoiding battle. Having learned their lesson, the Romans recalled Fabius and successfully pursued his strategy for over a decade. The Fabian strategy has become a military byword, a weapon of the weaker party based on the avoidance of battle until the balance of forces has changed or the enemy offers an unexpected opportunity. Its practitioners, at different times, have included Frederick the Great of Prussia, the Russian General Kutuzov in 1812, George Washington, and, at times, Mao Zedong. Fabius was known as Fabius Cunctator, or Fabius the delayer--originally a term of insult, but later a term of honor recognizing the success of his strategy.
Barack Obama, one might argue, has been pursuing a Fabian strategy for the last two years, and it has now been crowned with some success. He began his term confidently but failed to cope adequately with his own Carthaginian invasion, the Great Recession. Thus, despite an eventual victory on the health care front, he suffered his own Cannae in the elections of 2010. Those elections and the Republican-dominated redistricting that followed locked in a Republican majority in the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future. But like Hannibal, the Republicans became overconfident. They believed that the tide would continue to run in their favor, and that they could impose budget cuts on the President and sweep him out of office after one term. Obama, like Fabius, was remarkably non-confrontational and fruitlessly sought a deal. But after that failed, he sat back, essentially, while the Republicans flailed away at him and each other during the first half of 2012, alienating larger and larger fractions of the American public as they did so. By the time the general election campaign kicked off they had fatally weakened themselves. The popular vote remained fairly close, but Obama won the electoral college very handily and added seats in the Senate. Like an invading army, the Republicans now have to face an unpleasant fact: their strength, for demographic reasons, is bound to decline over time. Like Hannibal, they are still fighting wherever they can, but their prospect of decisive victory is gone forever.
It has been easy to criticize Barackus Cunctator for his caution, his concession to the deficit--essentially a phoney issue and a mainly Republican concern--and the excessively moderate policies he has pursued on the economy. Politically, however, his strategy had an extraordinary success, and he has for the moment regained the initiative. Yet he faces a problem. The Fabian strategy is a defensive one, and one cannot win a war with defense alone. Shortly before his death, Fabius lost a debate with another general, Scipio, who convinced the Romans to send him with an army to Carthage to force Hannibal to withdraw from Rome and, quite possibly, win the war. Scipio Africanus destroyed the Carthaginian Army at the Battle of Zama, and that was that.
Can Obama shift from being Fabius to being Scipio? It does not seem terribly likely, and he faces heavy odds in any event because of the House, but there are signs that he might. He is talking much more sharply to the Republicans than he ever has in the past. A signal of a new temper would be a serious Democratic attempt to change the filibuster rule, something that a couple of freshmen are talking about but which the leadership, to my knowledge, has not endorsed. Obama seems willing to risk a fight over the budget involving the lapse of all the Bush tax cuts, and that would be a game changer. The Republican threat to modern America is receding, but it is not yet clear how much of the New Deal can be restored. Perhaps, a regular reader suggests, if the Republicans continue to self-destruct, we can elect Scipio--or Scipia--in 2016. But upsetting our new balance of economic power will be much more difficult than simply defeating the GOP once more.