Don't Force A Decisive Battle When You're Weaker

When the ink dries on Sunday, the post-mortems will range from all kinds of inside baseball stories to how smart everyone is, but there was one fatal mistake that the Republicans made: the declared this battle the “Waterloo” of the Obama presidency.

War strategists of all eras would never tell you to engage in a decisive battle without having the advantage (some would say “overwhelming force.”) Clausewitz thinks that to win a war you have to fight this battle and win it, but you only go for it when you have the advantage. Otherwise, you must maneuver your army into the advantage until you can resist. The Republicans forced the decisive battle in 2009 instead of maneuvering until close enough to election season. Part of this lack of maneuver was their failure to vote for anything and turning HCR into a vehicle to destroy the Democratic party instead of forcing the Democrats into intra-party policy pie fights. While those pie fights were had, no one was under the illusion that a bill could fail without disaster, even for those Dems who vote ‘no.’

If the Republican leadership had demanded a piece-meal approach (which they did) but actually made it happen, they probably could have derailed this whole thing. For example, a vote in September on eliminating pre-existing conditions only and having it pass 80-20 in the Senate could have gone a long way. Their blind hatred for Obama refused them to allow him to do anything, and in the process they failed to ignore the dynamics of their inferior numbers.

With 256 Democrats and 218 needed (in general) there are 3,459,965,951,052,355,749,646,715,294,272,474,277,142,288,000 different ways to get 218 votes from 256 Democrats in the House and 2,160,153,123,141 different ways to get 50 votes from 60 Democrats and the Maine twins. Of course, it was really more about getting the last 10 of these both from a pool of maybe 12 gettable ones, still something that can be done 66 different ways (that’s enough combinatorics for this post).

History is riddled with arrogance leading armies into decisive battles that could not be won. Waterloo is arguably not one of them, but Napoleon’s attempt on Moscow and Hitler’s are both good examples. Had the Soviet army tried to save every inch of Soviet territory at the beginning of Operation Barbarosa, it is unlikely they would have won, and very likely that Hitler would have been at the Urals in the summer of 1942. Instead, the Russians gave ground at great price, something the French with their Maginot line, did not do. Ultimately, the Blitzkrieg got so far into Russia it effectively outran its logistical tail (which it had almost done in France, but the French didn’t notice). Then, the Russians hammered them. They outmaneuvered!

Another example from the Napoleonic wars might be the Battle of Jena. It was the end of the Prussian army, and Napoleon picked the spot.

Anyway, the Republicans were unwilling to give up their forward position (preexisting conditions) in order to allow for maneuver in the rear and so they picked a fight where even their total unity in resistance (except Cao one time) could hardly be deemed enough to allow all of the possible ways of getting the majority votes needed to be extinguished in detail, or reducing that probability in large degree by taking advantage of the usually favorable dynamics of midterm elections.

In contrast, Obama let the defeat in January wrap the GOP into a false sense of victoriousness. Anthem raised their rates and Senator Bunning used his holds to deliberately hurt people. Then, the Health Care summit showed that they still had nothing to offer, even when they could have consolidated that victory for, again, something like a few small regulations. They stonewalled thinking that the Brown victory sealed the deal even though talk of reconciliation had been going on since the beginning of the debate.

I can’t help but think that it wasn’t so much arrogance as just hatred of Obama that led to this grand strategy. Or maybe it was the feeling that they could simply repeat the tactics of 1993. Well, (I think it was Twain that said…) history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The major differences were that even though the numbers in Congress were roughly the same, the Democrats in the 103rd Congress were never cornered into an existential fight over health care—it was all kinds of issues, and I doubt that they could have achieved that unity. But what is more critical perhaps is that Bush I was not as unpopular as Bush II when he left office and Clinton only had 43% of the vote versus Obama’s 53%—10% more!

And the health care situation was nowhere near as bad then as it was now.

Luttwak says that strategy is marked by its paradoxical logic. Peace brings war. Victory brings defeat. This latter point is what happens when irrational exuberance about a victory leads to overconfidence and overextension. (To give the Germans some credit, they were able to resist the Soviets as long a they did by constant counterattack immediately after major defeats, catching the Russians too proud of themselves.) But ultimately, the fundamentals favor the stronger side—then it becomes a matter of execution.

This isn’t saying that I couldn’t have written an even more in depth of the Democratic failures and how they led to defeat, if that occurs. The Democrats weakness is their disunity, just as the Republicans unity is theirs (the paradox again). But there has to be a winner and a loser.