Fighting the Last War

 Posted by at 2:46 pm  National Politics
Sep 032012
 

One of the recurring warnings/lessons/pitfalls in military history and strategic training is the propensity for armies to prepare and plan for the last war they fought, rather than the next.

This is natural in humans: we learn based on experience and plan our future actions based on what we learned. It’s our one big evolutionary advantage.

Well, and thumbs.

The problem, of course, is that conditions and technology continue to evolve between the last conflict and the next. Since the 19th century they have done so at a breakneck pace. Yet those in positions of authority—often convinced by their long experience that they have understanding of what is coming—continue to make plans based on what they learned in the last conflict, much of which may no longer be applicable.

And so you get horse cavalry riding into machine-gun fire in World War I. You get France pouring resources into the Maginot Line to prevent a recurrence of World War I…and Hitler just going right around it by invading Belgium. You get years of senseless slaughter of American troops fighting to “take the hill” in Vietnam, only to lose it the minute they go back to base, because the brass doesn’t understand that they are in a guerrilla war, not a front-line war. And today, you get insane amounts of American money going into maintaining military presences in places like Japan and Germany where they have long since been unnecessary.

This brings me to Republican Presidential campaign strategy in 2012.

Since Ronald Reagan’s campaign, GOP Presidential campaign strategy has boiled down to this:

  1. Publicly, paint a glowing, nostalgic fantasy of what you’ll make of the country, avoiding specifics and sticking to platitudes;
  2. Make private promises to social conservatives you feel no particular commitment to keeping;
  3. Make private promises to wealthy donors you absolutely intend to keep;
  4. Do everything you can to load the dice: make it difficult for minorities and the poor to vote, promote cynicism about voting, etc.

That strategy worked for a long time. The coalition of the wealthy and the socially conservative remained aligned, solidified and grew: so much so that by 2000, Karl Rove decided that it was big enough that he could ignore swing voters entirely, and win simply by galvanizing the base with a hard-right message. And with the help of some vote suppression, Ralph Nader and five members of the Supreme Court, it worked.

It continued to work in 2004, even as the shine was coming off the Republican brand. As the economy became increasingly untenable for any but the very rich, the Iraq War proved itself to be both unwarranted and not the slam-dunk that had been promised, we bogged down in Afghanistan and the last of Bush’s post-September-11 poll resurgence faded away, it was a narrow thing. But he won, promptly tanked again in popularity, and control of Congress was wrested away by Democrats in 2006.

It took decades, but the Shrub finally broke the spell of the Republican brand for many reasonable Americans, who had watched the GOP get crazier and more and more unwilling to listen or govern since 1980.

The problem with having a culture based on unquestioning faith in dubious principles is that by definition, you don’t learn. Instead, you just tell yourself you already know everything, and any who disagree must be wrong.

So Rove & Co. didn’t learn that things had changed. They just kept running the only plays they knew: tell a happy-making story, game the system as much as you can, and work the base into a foaming lather so they’ll turn out.  But it failed in 2008. The GOP base had shrunk, the party’s constituencies were at one another’s throats, and an unexpected surge of young voters upended the smugly assured “real numbers” of Bush’s Brain.

They’re running exactly the same playbook in 2012. And thus we get voter ID laws and voter roll purges and Citizens United and busting of public employee unions, and the Platform of Hammurabi.

Other than in his snipes at the President, Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was in all pertinent particulars Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 and 1984: an invocation of a mythical postwar suburban America where all was safe and good for white men, women knew their place, and minorities were silent and invisible except when they were cleaning your house, shining your shoes or carrying your golf clubs. “Morning Again In America” all over again, 32 years after the first time this sanitized lie was sold to the American voter.

Of course, this fantasy describes a world that never existed, but I’m not talking about the content. I’m talking about the applicability of that message to the problem at hand, which is winning the election. With an electorate composed of today’s proportion of women who believe they should be treated as equals, minority voters, plus younger voters who don’t even know what he is talking about when he invokes the days of vanilla malteds at the drive-in with Peggy Sue, Romney and his handlers have developed yet another retread of a campaign plan designed to fight the last war.

No candidate has tried harder than Mitt Romney to obscure, deny, and obfuscate what his party really stands for. He and campaign strategists in his party understand that they cannot sell their policies on the merits (even zealot Paul Ryan is now doing a cute little dance around his plans to gut social safety net programs). But they believe that the Reagan/Bush Just-Keep-Telling-The-Pretty-Story-to-The-Believers strategy will once again sweep them into office, as it did those past Presidents.

My read is that it can’t work, and will work less and less going forward. So long as Republican strategists feel locked into trying to sell a vision of America as a White Man’s Suburban Christian Paradise to an increasingly urbanized and diverse country, their percentage of the vote will shrink.

They’re fighting the last war. The country has changed. If we have Happy Days ahead of us, the malteds come in a rainbow of flavors, the burgers are served with salsa, and Peggy Sue is the CEO of the drive-in chain.

At publication, the Dragon was SANGUINE