Friday, September 12, 2008

Parable from Another War

Watching helplessly (with typing finger iced, dressed, and elevated) as the Barack Obama campaign slid helplessly into the muck of fighting McCain over things like sex education classes and a "lipstick-on-a-pig" comment that had previously been used by McCain himself, I was suddenly reminded of another war that had unfolded on this same soil, many years ago. For one thing, that earlier war was supposed to be a hopeless mismatch: the supporters of the northern, industrialized, better-educated arm of American society began the struggle with staggering advantages in men, materiel, organization and logistics.

When the first face-to-face skirmish seemed imminent--at a small bridge over a Northern Virginia creek called Bull Run--the outcome seemed so assured that aristocrats from nearby Washington turned out in number to watch the proceedings from their carriages. Several professional portrait photographers sold key spaces on the abutment to the wealthiest onlookers, so that their own likeness could be superimposed over the rout that was expected to be unfolding directly behind them.

You know what happened next. The more southern, feudalistic, less-educated force on the other side of the creek rose up in righteous indignation and, ignoring their 7-3 disadvantage in numbers, routed the bigger and less nimble northerners on a recipe consisting of equal parts' gumption, ingenuity, fearlessness, and rage. It became known as "The Great Skedattle," as the well-funded and superior force simply broke in confusion and abandoned the field. In the end those fomrally-attired aristocrats watching from their carriages were lucky to escape with their lives.

And so it went: for more than two years, in battle after battle, the northern forces struggled to find their feet in a contest that should have been theirs almost before it began: they squandered resources, failed to attack when moments of providence were handed them, and, most telling of all as such analogies go, when they did attack it was almost always on the wrong ground, poorly planned, badly executed, and ended in humiliating defeat and needless bloodshed on both sides. The culmination of this cascade of missteps probably came at the sleepy Virginia town of Fredericksburg, where in December of 1862, the much larger and richer army saw the smaller and poorer one entrenched behind a stone wall at the top of a long, gently sloping hill, and--unfathomably--decided to mount a full-frontal assault on the wall, marching straight up the hill into a mass of musket and cannon-fire.

It was a disaster. The northern troops plodded uphill through a field of ordinance so thick that one eyewitness described them as, "hunched over, one shoulder pointed toward the wall--as if breasting a summer storm." They fell in numbers so vast and so pointless that President Lincoln's only response, upon learning the news, was "My God, my God, what will the country say?" It may have been the darkest single moment for the north, in the entire Civil War--a n accomplishment that, given the way things had progressed, would have taken quite a bit of doing.

Watching from the sidelines of election-2008 with a bum writing hand, I have become convinced that the Obama campaign has lost a pair of big and important battles in this struggle in rapid succession: the week of the Republican national convention, and the week after that. And they've lost them in many of the same ways: misuse of resources, extra forces held needlessly in reserve, poor execution of what should be better organization, and, above all, needless engagement on all the wrong hills. (On this last point, at least, I would seem to agree with none other than Karl Rove.)

The bad news for the Obama is that these missteps have cost their army dearly. Make no mistake, these are a big pair of weeks to lose, in a national election campaign--since many people make their "final" decision about whom to support, in the immediate aftermath of the second of the two conventions. Mr. McCain is now leading among self-described independents, leading among whites, leading in some (though decidedly not all) of the national tracking polls and, as of this morning, leading in the whip-count of electoral votes being chronicled in real time at both electoral-vote.com and fivethirtyeight.com.

If the election were held today, only Obama's vaunted ground-game would lead any of us who support him to remain optimistic about the outcome, and even that is suddenly and breathlessly in doubt, with this late-breaking story about yet another Republican effort to disenfranchise voters, this time in Ohio, using a nakedly dirty trick involving absentee ballot requests. If Obama cannot count on his ground-game superiority, as now looks possible, the election could once again come down to who has the most effective air war--and at the moment that is simply and painfully no contest at all. To put it succinctly, the bad news for Team Obama at the end of this first post-convention week is very bad indeed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to defeat for that earlier, northerly, industrialized army doing battle on many of the same fields all those years ago: They got their shit together.

Specifically, they changed the entire dialogue of the conflict by using their superior resources to surprise, for a change, rather than constantly and maddeningly settling for reacting to the other team's surprise. Rather than a Fredericksburg-style assault on Vicksburg, they besieged it instead, forcing the south into re-deploying resources they did not have, and eventually goading them into a move just one Pennsylvania county too brazen even for their gumption-based recipe for success, at which the southerners were horrifically slaughtered on the final day of the battle of Gettysburg.

In the end, the war dragged on for much longer than it should have, with an outcome that was in far graver doubt than should ever have been allowed to descend upon it, with much, much higher casualties on both sides than should ever have been necessary. But at that last possible moment before British and French recognition of the south, the northerners marshaled their under-employed masses and eeked out the narrowest of victories--an expression for which the modifier is always, in all wars, completely beside the point in hindsight. We didn't put Mr. Lincoln's face on the five-dollar bill because he was too weak and hesitant to fire George McClellan in the winter of 1861, that's for sure.

Team Obama must now take these lessons as their cardinal marching orders for the next, crucial two weeks headed into the first debate. They must change the dialogue completely--forcing McCain onto a new and temper-tinged defense along a vector of electoral discourse that we haven't thought of. They need to remind themselves that this election is theirs to lose, and they need to start acting like it by forcing the agenda. They need TV-ads that aren't just more effective and harder-hitting, but which make a strong, self-evident argument that hasn't been advanced in their TV-ads before. They need to shatter this nonsensical idea that a choice of Vice Presidential nominee -- any choice of Vice Presidential nominee -- can decide the question of whether John McCain should be our next President.

And as nervous as I am about all of this right now, don't ask me why, I seem to want to think that this is Obama's Fredericksburg moment. I seem to want to believe, for one thing, that he can take his lessons from some war other than Vietnam--and play the game to an outcome better than the one we achieved, there. I seem to want to think, even now, that Mr. Obama is going to win this election.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

5 comments:

isuyankee said...

One thing that is working to McCain's advantage is that oil prices continue to fall. Crude oil futures are down more than $40per barrel over the past couple of months as the Saudis have pumped relentlessly - even defying the rest of OPEC this week to do so. The Iranians and Venezuelans want the highest prices now with no thought toward the future. The Saudis are much wiser and their reasons for wanting to drive the market lower are quite reasonable. Their cost of production is somewhere in the neighborhood of $3-$4 per barrel. While $140 oil leads to record revenue, it also leads to innovation and conservation. It could eventually (theoretically) lead to "the end" of the fossil fuel era. (although that is likely an overstatement) To this economic end, they wanted prices to go down. There is a political component as well, I think. The Saudis are quite saavy and realize that the Republicans are the party that would stress drilling over conservation and oil over alternative fuels. They know that Alaska is no real threat to them, but solar, biofuels, and/or electric cars might be. (I say "might" because I don't profess to be an expert on the technology). Anyway, the politcial points are (a) that the Saudis are trying to help McCain and (b) high gas prices have become a lesser issue which helps McCain. Oh yeah, and there is another factor that may have contrinuted to the drop in oil prices---legislation has been floated to curb speculation in futures markets. The sponsor of that bill----Joe Lieberman. It's the economy stupid---and McCain and company are looking pretty smart for the moment.

vader said...

The so called ground game of Obama will not show up on polls as GOTV and voter registration fly under the polls.

Palin and the rest just gives the weak GOP partisans to express now what they would have expressed in 6 weeks anyway.

Indeed Palin may be the gift that keeps on giving to the Dems as she flubs press interviews or is cloistered from them The lies of McCain may also backfire as his strength of character is dissipated in Rovian lies.

The economy will not help McCain and may negate the gas price drop( if any, it is headed back to $4 where I live)

Keep in mind that the pubbies have their set of problems. Palin may mess up big time or McCain have a senior moment on live TV. You have Bob Barr ready to snatch up 1% or more in close states and Ron Paul instructing his folks to abandon the GOP. Nader may hurt Obama but much less than the two newer guys.

vader said...

Ron Pauls primary results

http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/candidates/#302

Just for speculation

nowherem said...

So far Obama is conducting a civil war and McGrumpy is waging an UNcivil war. If Obama wants to have a chance at winning, he must change tactics: ads showing McGrumpy saying one thing and then the opposite; Palin saying stupid stuff--there's plenty out there.

I hope the last two weeks have marked Obama's Fredericksburg and that now he will get smarter, smell the coffee, and start the carnage. (Or maybe, start the carnage and then have some coffee.)

I think I'll make some coffee now.

The Key Grip said...

I agree completely with the idea of showing McCain speaking in his own words. They're a treasure-trove of gifts to the Obama campaign and so far Obama hasn't used them at all. (Someone at work said to me, "John Stewart is making better Obama commercials than Obama is," and I don't disagree.)

We need to be taking the best of the thirty- and sixty-second versions from youtube and forwarding them back to our local field offices and state chairs, begging for an immediate inclusion of some of them in the advertising buys.