Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All This Much to Lose Than All This Much to Gain

It's interesting to note how often military battles are invoked for comparisons or metaphors for political battles. Commentary on President Obama's recent campaign for health care is replete with references to historical military campaigns or specific battles.

Last summer, Senator Jim Demint was the first, but far from the last, to speculate that failure to enact health care reform could be Obama's Waterloo. At the time, I thought that Stalingrad might be more appropriate as a health care defeat for Obama wouldn't necessarily be the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. More recently, we've seen speculation that even if health care reform is somehow rammed through, it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the President.

Now, it seems like there's a new favorite making the rounds with more and more pundits comparing Pelosi's health care cramdown to Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. This one does seem to be especially apt at the moment. For like General Lee at Gettysburg, President Obama's final push on health care is a desperate gamble in the hopes of achieving a smashing victory that will change history. Like Lee's choice after two hard fought days at Gettysburg, President Obama could have chosen to disengage, to step away from the fight, lick his wounds, and wait for another opportunity.

Had Lee left the field after two days, Gettysburg would have been a setback for the South and a minor victory for the North. But it would not have been the kind of pivotal point that it turned out to be. After Gettysburg, the South would never again threaten the North with invasion and hopes for a decisive Southern victory to end the war were gone. Historians continue to whether the Union's victory at Gettysburg was militarily "decisive" in terms of the outcome of the Civil War overall, but there's no doubt that it was significant. It boosted Northern morale proved that Union troops (and more importantly) their generals could beat the Confederates under Lee. Without the failure of Pickett's Charge on Day Three, Gettysburg might have gone down in history as another one of the bloody, but largely inconclusive battles of the Civil War.

By committing himself to getting the health care reform bill through now, President Obama is following Lee's lead by rolling the dice. If he wins, it could irrevocable alter the political landscape. While the GOP will do all they can to repeal it, they're going to face an uphill struggle. Once Obamacare begins law, Obama will hold the high ground and be in an advantageous position to defend his gains. However, if he loses it's difficult to imagine that Obama will ever be able to mount a significant domestic policy campaign before 2012. He'll be forced to pull back, watch as the Democrats take their lumps in November, and enter into a stalemate with a much less friendly Congress.

Finally, no matter how what the outcome of the current House battle is, the casualties among Pelosi's caucus will likely resemble those suffered by Pickett's troops. After the failed charge, when Lee asked Pickett to reform his division for defense, Pickett is alleged to have replied, "Sir, I have no division." Under similar circumstances, President Obama could well hear something like "Sir, I have no majority" from Speaker Pelosi after this November's election.

UPDATE: Yet another historical parallel is that some of the fiercest fighting at Gettysburg was at Devil's Den while the outcome of the health care reform battle may hinge on who wins the fight for Demon Pass.

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