Belmont Club

The Anatomy of Lost Causes

The debate over whether to draw a line in the sand in front of President Obama’s drive to get still more money was characterized as Rich Lowry as a “nothing hand”. It was tempting to preach defiance, but not when there was nothing to back it up.  Charles Krauthammer wrote in the same vein:

You cannot govern this country from one house. Republicans should have learned that from the 1995-96 Gingrich-Clinton fight when the GOP controlled both houses and still lost.

If conservatives really want to get the nation’s spending under control, the only way is to win the presidency. Put the question to the country and let the people decide. To seriously jeopardize the election now in pursuit of a long-term, small-government, Ryan-like reform that is inherently unreachable without control of the White House may be good for the soul. But it could very well wreck the cause.

Both counseled the Republicans to play for time, to call the President’s bluff about the necessity of a long-term agreement and giving him a temporary lifeline. “The Republican House should immediately pass a short-term debt-ceiling hike of $500 billion containing $500 billion in budget cuts. That would give us about five months to work on something larger,” said Krauthammer. Lowry put the same idea thus, “given the devastation that the administration predicts will be visited on the country in the absence of an increase, Obama’s threat to veto a place-holding hike in the limit is probably just what he called it — a bluff.” Give him a short term increase, fall back and do it again.

The problem with figuring out what Congress should do is that the consequences are literally incalculable.  Organizations full of offensive spirit hate to retreat. What’s to gain in retreat?  History is full of instances when fighting lost causes led to unpredictable results. During the Battle of Okinawa, General Ushijima against his better judgment allowed his 32nd Army to mount an offensive against the US Tenth Army some days after the landing. It made no impression and Ushijima was forced to accept that his best strategy was to wear down the US advance by ordering his men to stay in their defensive positions. Tactically, the offensive efforts of the 32nd Army were a mistake, but the campaign itself was eminently successful. In a larger context the Okinawa defense was a “Japanese victory”. But stepping back again and enlarging the context yet again, it was a victory that contained the seeds of an even greater disaster. The effectiveness of the Japanese defense on Okinawa forced the Allies to reconsider the invasion of Japan and substitute for it the Atomic Bomb. Okinawa in the largest context was a defeat.

The doomed stand of Albert I of Belgium comes to mind in contrast. The Belgian King decided to resist the German march through his country in 1914 (“I rule a nation, not a road”) and actually won something by his stubborness. Belgian resistance made it possible for the French to make their counter-attack on the Marne and stay alive. And of course, there was the Alamo. The Alamo ended poorly for everyone in the mission, but it is the single most immortal place in Texas today.

But not every stand is an Alamo.  For every Alamo there a hundred other lost efforts that were just that: bad judgments that in retrospect changed nothing. The problem in history is that nobody knows in advance whether he is at the Alamo or Thermopylae or simply at one of the much more numerous plain lost causes. If the GOP activists decide to stand hard on this issue, they will have to take their chances on which it will be. One way to guess which it will be  are two things. First, historical ‘Alamos’ are fought in causes that are likely to triumph in the long run. The defeat of the small band only dramatically contrasts with the inevitable victory. The second attribute of Alamos is that a core of resistance survives the local destruction. A San Jacinto comes along to even the score.

The problem with Ushijima’s defense of Okinawa was that it was fought in a strategically doomed cause. Okinawa changed nothing and was ultimately futile. But Albert’s resistance, like the Alamo’s, was founded on strong strategic prospects which “paid off”. Applying analysis to the debt ceiling problem, we can see that the GOP’s problem is that they are strategically in good shape but tactically behind the 8 ball. The GOP cannot in the long run be wrong about fighting to reduce the deficit and the size of government, but they can get sufficiently mauled if the Democrats, controlling the Senate, the White House and the Press can rout and disperse them in time for the next election.

What Lowry and Krauthammer are arguing is that it is better to give ground slowly with an eye to 2012. In contrast, what some conservative activists seem to be saying is that the time has come for a stand; to bring the issue to a head if it can become the rallying cry of the coming years. In strictly electoral terms, Lowry and Krauthammer might be right. In a broader political sense they might be wrong. This reflects the disparate insider-outsider views of the established politicians and the freshly-elected activists. To the insiders all battles are to be fought within the strict confines of the game. To recent outsiders, the system itself is mutable; and the only way to beat the house is to upset the gaming table. The problem with upsetting the gaming table, as those who have tried it probably know, is that it looks easier than it is.

For those who think the GOP can win on points from now until November 2012, a short-term debt ceiling raise makes good sense. But for those who feel the GOP is only going to mess it up, a short-term debt raise will be meaningless unless the President is strongly and publicly defied to boot. For the activists the mere act of standing fast has an importance unto itself. The former makes an appeal to tactics; the latter makes an appeal to the power of symbols. But ideally both should be present. At the Battle of Concord the militia had both tactical and symbolic superiority.

The debate within the conservative ranks, seen by the Left of the proof of weakness, probably betokens the opposite. From the internal debate a whole new generation of Congressional leaders is rising to maturity in this crisis and the experience can only make them stronger. Provided it can avoid a catastrophe, the debt ceiling crisis will be seen as a win for conservatives in years to come. As long as the conservatives don’t completely lose they will win. Therefore they should risk something and not be unduly worried about losses short of the fatal.