A few observations on the battle for America’s future as it shapes up heading for 1 October, or perhaps 17 October, or perhaps a date after that.
1. Allen West invoked Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300 Spartans as an analogy to where we are after Ted Cruz’s stand in the Senate this week. Cruz being from Texas, I was going to invoke the Alamo, Colonel Travis, and the 180-some who died with him in the siege there. But OK.
As every school kid used to know, Thermopylae and the Alamo both mattered, even though both battles were lost by their tiny contingents of doughty defenders. The pass at Thermopylae was well-chosen terrain for a defending force as small as the Spartans’; the Alamo was poorly chosen for making a defensive stand against a much superior Mexican army. Both battles were, in any case, lost. But their defenders ultimately won their wars in other battles: the Greeks in the naval contest at Salamis, a few weeks later; the Texans at the Battle of San Jacinto, six weeks after the Alamo fell.
It’s useful to consider the Alamo’s aftermath. Its fall to the army of Santa Anna caused Texan settlers to flee eastward and the Texan army to retreat and regroup. The fledgling Republic of Texas government took to the hoof as well. And Santa Anna got cocky, splitting his army and sending it in three different directions across what is now south Texas to mop up stragglers.
But news of the Alamo brought in a flood of recruits to Sam Houston’s Texan army. On 21 April 1836, the freshly armed and emboldened Texans attacked Santa Anna’s rump force near Lynchburg Ferry. After the ensuing Battle of San Jacinto (which lasted 18 minutes), Santa Anna was captured, and was forced to order his army out of Texas. The war for Texan independence was won.
Was Cruz’s Stand an “Alamo” moment? Will it bring recruits to the political battle against big-government inertia? I don’t think we know the answer to that yet. But I do think reflexive naysayers are wrong to proclaim doom preemptively. I can’t count the number of times I heard, during his “non-filibuster” on the Senate floor, that people out there were listening to Cruz – people who haven’t paid that much attention before, younger people and lower-information voters.
Cruz was saying things you could understand. He was getting his point across, on his terms. Is there anyone who doesn’t understand that his purpose was to prevent the implementation of Obamacare, while still funding the government for the next year?
I’ve seen this next point made multiple times in the last few days as well – not by the mainstream, go-to pundits on the right, to be sure, but by the independents: bloggers, talk radio hosts, readers in the comments sections. When Obamacare ratchets up the hurt for more and more people in the next year – if the House can’t at least get the individual mandate delayed – those lower-information voters will remember Ted Cruz. It’s not that it will be a political triumph for him. It’s that they will remember there was someone taking a clear, identifiable stand. They’ll remember the fight: remember that there was someone with a serious plan to stop this thing.
2. This is the fight of our generations’ time, and frankly, it’s in some ways a much harder one than the fight entrusted to the Greatest Generation. In this fight, we can’t fall back on the simplicity of armed shoot-outs for terrain. We are battling for terrain: we’re battling for who controls the political future of America, and how we shall live on our abundantly blessed territory. But the battles are political, moral and spiritual, and right now, they are being shaped for us by a small, radical minority, which is able to wag the great, well-meaning shaggy dog that is the American public because we have handed them the leverage of big government to do it with.
I don’t see a clever way around this problem: a way of somehow inducing better conditions out of bad ones, without the people having to come to their senses. But I’m also not convinced that the people are as far from coming to their senses as the old-school thinkers in the GOP would have us assume.
I am convinced that the only way to win this fight is to educate and persuade the people, and offer them sensible, meaningful alternatives. Notably, that’s what Ted Cruz was doing: educating, persuading, and offering a sensible, meaningful alternative. Given the consistent trend of the polls, what he proposed is what Americans actually want: get rid of Obamacare, while funding and operating the federal government on schedule, without raising the debt ceiling. It’s a testament to how utterly distorted Beltway thinking is, that that commonsensical plan is the one that’s considered nutty and unworkable.
(I was especially entranced by Kirsten Powers’ argument on Fox News on the Friday afternoon panel, that Republicans are being stupid by picking Obama’s “signature piece of legislation” as their hill to die on. What that actually tells us is how stupid politics is.)
3. And that brings us to the point that, in light of information from the polls and the truth on the ground, it’s the Democrats who by rights should have to compromise. What the people want is logical and consistent. The people want to keep government open, overturn Obamacare, and reduce federal spending so as not to require another debt-ceiling increase. None of this is illogical or impossible. It’s all rational and feasible. It just means that it’s the Democrats who have to change their demands to make it happen.
4. Yet no one with the voice of authority frames the current “crisis” in those clear and simple terms – certainly not the leading right-wing pundits and GOP political leadership. When Ted Cruz and his allies point out that that’s our ground truth, they are excoriated from both sides of the aisle. How we have let ourselves be cornered by expectation and procedure!
5. Still: are the Democrats obliging us by pulling a “Santa Anna” and getting too cocky? Very possibly. They have certainly burned their bridges with everyone outside their own base. Yet they themselves only look unified and purposeful in comparison to the pathetically paralyzed, self-destructive Republicans. Twelve months ago, no Democrat wanted the president campaigning in his district. Twelve weeks ago, they were defecting right and left from Obamacare. Three weeks ago, they were criticizing the president, in growing alarm, for his handling of Syria and the NSA surveillance issue. Democrats haven’t suddenly become a monolith.
What too many rank and file Republicans see, however, is the GOP’s own leaders retreating alongside the Democrats across the burning bridge, with a few of them stamping at the flames ineffectively and hollering at us to shake a leg and follow them, already, since they know what they’re doing in this smart man’s game of politics, and we’re just a bunch of tea-baggers.
6. What the Alamo did – what Thermopylae did – was crystallize and clarify the strategic situations of the Texans, respectively, and the Greeks. The watershed battles forced the Texans and Greeks to take stock and make decisions, rather than merely dog-paddling on a current of pre-existing momentum.
Cruz’s Stand poses to Republicans, indeed to all advocates of limited government, exactly that challenge: taking stock and making decisions. Do we need to see our situation with any more clarity than this? Republican leaders prefer to accept the outcome of procedure – not “law,” procedure – regardless of how it affects the people. The cloture vote in the Senate shows in the starkest terms that 25 of the Senate Republicans associate their interests with a continuation of the Democrats’ status quo.
We can’t let these people be our leaders any longer. That is the element of this whole mix that it is within the power of conservative activists to change. It has to be where we put our effort. I don’t think we know yet what it will take to dethrone the GOP’s current leadership: whether it can be done within the Republican brand, or will have to take the form of a third-party surge.
I do think that success will depend partly, but not wholly, on viable personalities emerging in leadership positions. I also think that that field is wide open, except for the lack of credibility that insistent defenders of the status quo will have from here on out. There will be no need to take action to exclude the McCains and McConnells from strategizing for the future. They just won’t be there where the future is being planned. We need not say it with rancor, but we know it: their irrelevance is sealed. They are the past.
We can’t know yet if Ted Cruz himself will span the roles of Leonidas and Themistocles, or Travis and Houston. But the sun came up after Thermopylae, as it came up after the Alamo, and the cause in which brave men gave their lives was ultimately won. We have not yet begun to fight.