If Barack Obama has only finished the first part of a plan to re-architecture US society, as Charles Krauthammer warns, as a prelude to an even more ambitious second act involving the “massive regulation of the energy economy, federalizing higher education and ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform”, the question is whether the political opposition to Obama’s policies ought to take the same long range strategic view. If Krauthammer is right, and the President plans nothing less than capturing the ideological opposition’s political capital to destroy it forever, then the logical response of any opponent would be symmetrical. A liberalism intentionally out to flatten its opponents risks being paid back in its own coin. After all, who marches on Moscow stakes the life of Berlin. Yet isn’t all this apocalyptic talk jumping the gun? How can anyone be sure the President has the long term aims that Krauthammer suggests?
No one can yet. Until a political conflict is perceived in these zero-sum terms no opposing group going all out in the other direction can be expected to emerge. You have to first convince enough people an existential threat impends for them to take that step. Whether Krauthammer is right or wrong, the President has to be allowed the first-move advantage. Consequently there will be no single opposition to a grand plan that has yet to unfold unless it unfolds alongside it. That has happened in the past in the form of coalitions.
The Napoleonic Wars are an example of opposition growing in response to a threat of initially unknown magnitude. A total of seven coalitions were successively raised against Napoleon before he was finally defeated. As Napoleon grew from the master of France to the master Europe the scale of his enemies rose correspondingly. His enemies shadowed his rise. If Napoleon had not had continental ambitions he would not have had continent-wide foes. And not always the same ones. By the end of it Russia, Austria and Prussia would switch sides. The one constant was the unswerving strategic hand of Britain which patiently organized a league of enemies against him until it ended on a field in Belgium some seven million casualties and nearly 30 years later. Britain underwrote coalition armies; hired mercentaries and used their command of the sea to ensure that Bonaparte’s victories were never permanent.
So anyone really worried that Charles Krauthammer’s prediction will come true should be thinking in terms of contingent coalitions: a long-term plan to cripple the liberal agenda if it decides to permanently cripple the conservative one. In this case the President gets to show his hand first and it gives him a crucial edge. The party with the first move advantage acting vigorously enough may be able to pre-empt the emergence of hostile coalitions if it sweeps the the political field so completely it eliminates any place from which an opposition comeback can be staged. That is in part how one-party rule has effectively been achieved in Chicago which has only one Republican alderman on the City Council. It is proof of the efficacy of Democratic coalition strategy starting from the 1930s in which every important ethnic group was a given a piece of the pie in exchange for backing the machine. That formula has ensured dominance to this to this day, allowing for changes in ethnic composition
Krauthammer thinks he sees the signs; he believes that Obama’s unwillingness to compromise signals his determination to push past mounting public opposition to capture of all the bases. Then he will have his own Chicago but on a national scale. Krauthammer writes:
That’s why there’s so much tension between Obama and congressional Democrats. For Obama, 2010 matters little. If Democrats lose control of one or both houses, Obama will probably have an easier time in 2012, just as Bill Clinton used Newt Gingrich and the Republicans as the foil for his 1996 reelection campaign.
Obama is down, but it’s very early in the play. Like Reagan, he came here to do things. And he’s done much in his first 500 days. What he has left to do he knows must await his next 500 days — those that come after reelection.
The real prize is 2012. Obama sees far, farther than even his own partisans. Republicans underestimate him at their peril.
‘They misunderestimate him at their peril’ — that is — when they are estimating anything at all. Conservative victories are often won in a state of absentmindedness and their defeats are likewise characterized. The problem is this time they may be taking too much for granted on the assumption they will have a base from which to stage a comeback: the equivalent of a Napoleonic-era Britain from which to hatch as many coalitions as necessary until President Obama and his successors meets their Waterloo. But Chicago didn’t get that chance, because unlike England there was no place the Boss could not go. By contrast England’s special geographical position always meant there was somewhere Napoleon could not go. But where in America if Obama achieves his goal could his party not go? The historical parallel founders on this difference. England’s island position meant there were seven bites at the cherry. If 2010 and 2012 don’t work who’s to say there will be opportunities beyond that?
The importance of a secure base cannot be overstated. After Bonaparte’s armies had swept aside all continental opposition an invasion scare swept England and Admiral Jervis was asked to render his opinion on the likelihood Napoleon would be in Britain. He said he could not answer for the army but … “I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea.” That base would eventually defeat Napoleon and he knew it. In Mahan’s words, “those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.” What is the equivalent wooden wall for a conservative movement in retreat?
The key then to ensuring a contingent response to a contingent threat is the assured survival of a secure base.
But a secure base does not have to be defined by geography. It can be built on human terrain and augmented, subject to some constraints, as a meme in cyberspace. Therefore a conservative strategist who is concerned that Charles Krauthammer’s dire prognosis will happen cannot go far wrong building up a widespread, grassroots organization with extensions into the online world. This is separate and distinct from building up the ordinary party machinery. In that way even if the traditional political forms of conservatism are scattered, defeated or machined out of existence in 2010 and 2012 there may survive a core of opposition that can organize a series of coalitions against the men who would be permanent leaders. But more importantly it will remove the temptation to go for the whole hog. By strengthening the grassroots on terms not bound to the party affiliation but independent of the leftist infrastructure, conservatism can create a defense in depth. This has a stabilizing effect. The further complete and total victory is placed from the grasp of even the most ambitious activists of the Democratic Party the less likely they are to persuade their more moderate colleagues to roll the dice. And that’s good. Because all realistic worry about one side completely dominating the other can be effectively dismissed to the probable benefit of everyone. Politics was never meant to be winner-take-all.