Belmont Club

Nothing half so melancholy

Ezra Klein writing in the Washington Post describes an online conference between President Obama and ‘progressive’ bloggers. Despite the upbeat message to the liberal faithful not to be discouraged by the resistance the health care proposal is receiving, the fact is that there is resistance;  one which which President Obama believes he can blast through in a closed door session. Trust Us is the message, Klein says.

The audience for this call — which I was not originally invited to, but was able to listen in on — was mainly progressive bloggers, and so the underlying argument was that liberals should have some faith that a disappointing draft out of the Senate Finance Committee is not the end of the process, and they should not lose heart.

But it’s also a risky strategy: The plea for progressives to avoid making “the best the enemy of the good,” and instead remember that flaws can be fixed in conference committee, is, on some level, the White House saying, “Trust us.” Conference committee, after all, is a closed-door negotiation that is hard to influence. What emerges will be very hard, if not impossible, to change. If the White House does not hew to the same bottom lines as the progressive bloggers, or is not able to persuade the congressional negotiators to honor its preferences, the product could diverge quite sharply from what some liberals are hoping for.

“This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses, and breaking America’s economy,” Obama said on a visit to a Washington hospital.” But his political opponents sense a weakening of his onset and for the first time think the One can be defeated.

Last week, South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint predicted the Obama plan would not pass Congress, and said such a failure could be Obama’s “Waterloo,” referring to the battle that effectively ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career.

“It will break him,” DeMint said,

Obama made direct reference to DeMint’s predictions, and called on lawmakers to avoid the “politics of delay and defeat.”

I think DeMint’s analogy is wrong and Obama nearer the mark when he expressed a fear of “delay and defeat”.  Health care is not Obama’s Waterloo. Waterloo was Napoleon’s last gasp.  Obama is still moving forward, albeit much more slowly than just a few months ago. 2009 is not yet Obama’s 1815. A better analogy is 1812: the year of Napoleon’s arrival in Moscow, when his army seized the capital he long desired only to find he could not loot it of enough to sustain his men. “La Grande Armée, that set its position in a military camp manner and was carelessly looting sellable valuables, had also its share of responsibility: many buildings caught fire from bonfires they made for cooking.” Having stripped everything before it like a swarm of locusts, La Grand Armee was forced to return the way it came, over the same landscape it had picked clean. Tolstoy denied that Napoleon had been defeated by the strategic generalship of his opponents; he was simply beaten by harsh arithmetic of nature and of negative sums and by his own hubris.  In his ambition, Napoleon forgot that conquest was not the same thing as governance.

Tolstoy records the dispersal of the French army into the empty houses of the wealthy Muscovites as a failure of command which sapped the integrity of the French army. They fired the city through carelessness because they did not belong there. When they left the city in a panic, they had ceased to be an army and all they cared about was keeping their loot. Rather than confront his men about this, Napoleon let them keep it, which hampered their withdrawal and made them more vulnerable to successful attack by the Russian partisans. Not only that, instead of taking a route which offered the prospect of provisions, he took the route back through Smolensk which had already been laid waste.

If Obama’s victories — the stimulus, bailouts, cap and trade and now health care — are from another point of view, a kind of looting, then he may have arrived at the point where there is nothing more to loot. Like Napoleon, the capital is his, but it lies in ashes, unable even to sustain his victories. If DeMint is looking for an analogy, it is that twilight moment when Napoleon looked out over the burning city, given over to frenzy and first realized he had thrust his hand into a monkey trap. It is doubtful that Obama, like Napoleon, will be defeated by his bumbling opponents. They are too inept. What crushed the Grand Armee was the vanity of its commander. At first his men did not drop the silks, silver, jewels and fine fabrics willingly. Yet as Grand Armee trod its dolorous road back to Western Europe the wayside became littered by discarded heaps of treasure that but a few weeks before they would have killed for. But that was 1812. Waterloo was three years and a long distance away, across Berezina Bridge, beyond many frozen rivers, yet it always lay in wait at the end of the Emperor’s road. Even Napoleon must have known it.


Berezina Bridge

The fate of the Grand ArmeeThe Fate of the Grand Armee, the width of the line proportionate to its numbers
The beige in advance, the black in retreat (Hat tip: Gerard Vanderleun)

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