Lessons from Gettysburg on the SS tax cut fight

In war, generals must consider and balance two important aspects: territory and strategy.  Neither of these two is necessarily more important than the other.  You cannot say strategy must always take a back seat to territory or vice versa.  There are equivalent aspects in political war.  The political equivalent to territory is ideals and the equivalent to strategy is, well, strategy.  In war we recognize that strategy must be considered.  One side cannot just control territory.  They need a plan for controlling it, either a way to gain control – offense – or a way to retain control – defense.  In the military, people who are good at strategy are commended and sometimes even promoted to a higher position.  Strangely though, in politics, strategy is often viewed unfavorably.  People deride strategy as simply playing games with legislation.  There are some of the opinion that we should ignore strategy altogether and just focus on our ideals.  Unfortunately, that idea works about as well in politics as does focusing on territory without strategy works in warfare.

A good example comes from the U.S. Civil War in the battle of Gettysburg.  Recall that on the first day of battle, Union troops controlled the town.  Confederate troops ran into union soldiers on the western edge of town.  During the first day Union troops retreated through Gettysburg to take up the strategic high positions in the east and south of town.

Now consider that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, a state that was part of the Union side of this war.  To the best of my knowledge, the people of Gettysburg supported the Union.  They certainly didn’t welcome the Confederates with open arms, and they did not take up arms against the Union forces.  My point is that Gettysburg was Union territory in every way, shape, and form.

Consider also that the duty of Union troops was to defend Union territory.  (Of course, their other duty was to attack Confederate territory, but since Gettysburg was not Confederate territory, that is irrelevant here.)   If the city of Gettysburg was Union territory then Union troops were duty bound to protect it.  On this evidence then, one can only come to the conclusion that Union troops at Gettysburg were extremely derelict in their duty.  No matter what, they should have stayed in town to protect the good people and their homes and businesses there instead of conceding that territory to the Confederates.

Of course this argument is ridiculous.  Gettysburg was not a disaster for the Union; it was the turning point of the war.  This all happened because they followed good strategy.  They held the strategic high ground instead of blindly following duty to protect the town itself.

There should be a lesson here for our political war.  We cannot just blindly follow conservative ideology (the equivalent to military territory) and hope that the political strategy works itself out.  We need to have a strategy to follow.  That strategy needs to take into account the terrain (not territory) on which we fight our battles.  Political terrain is determined by voter opinion which can be somewhat assessed by polling.  Of course, unlike warfare, political terrain can be improved but it takes effort: advertising, speaking, and education.  We cannot just blindly hope that following principle will sway public opinion.

We have lost a lot of territory this year.  The deficit and the debt are looking bad.  We have been out maneuvered by the Dems on the general budget fight.  Under these circumstances, some on our side are desperate for a win, even a small win that will not gain back much territory.  Unfortunately in their zeal to get that small win they are willing fight a battle on lousy terrain.  Like it or not, the Dems have the high ground on the Social Security tax cut.  The public favors their position, and there is no time to change the terrain.  And we cannot afford the resources to change it.  If you have not looked, we have a big election coming up next year.  If we win – controlling the House, the Senate, and the White House – we are in a much better position to win on these small battles.

While Dems have been winning battles this past year, many of these wins have been pyrrhic victories.  Sure they get to spend more, but their credibility on fiscal responsibility has taken a huge hit.  The public now trust Republicans over Democrats on fiscal issues.  The Dems have put themselves in a very vulnerable position with respect to the election, but we cannot take advantage of that position unless we follow a disciplined strategy.  If we simply attack willy-nilly we may win a few small skirmishes but at the cost of political goodwill with the voters.  We need to keep our eyes on the big prize, next year’s elections.

Over the next year we need to fight on good terrain where we have the backing of public opinion.  Sometimes we have to concede territory on unfavorable terrain, but at those times we should make the Dems pay a price like attaching small policies that we favor, i.e. the Keystone pipeline.  We won’t always get all the policies that we favor, but we should take what we can.  We cannot get caught in details but have to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, the general strategy.