Nobody ever won by surrendering the initiative

Hillary, Pragmatic ProgressiveThis will just be a brief note on strategy. Nobody ever reads these and they never change anything, so I have no idea why I still bother, but here we go anyway.

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on public radio this morning, which featured a panel discussing how last night’s Democratic presidential debate turned out. Asking a group of deeply conventional people to produce insta-takes on a subject doesn’t usually result in much insight, and this show was no exception. Near the end, though, the discussion took a turn that I thought illustrated just how badly informed on the subject of strategy DC conventional wisdom tends to be.

The point was made most strongly by panelist Stu Rothenberg, who’s been one of the leading professional political cud-chewers in America for a couple of decades now. The panel was discussing whether Bernie Sanders is too far to the left politically to be an effective President, and Rothenberg opined that he is:

As to this question of how he would perform as President, it came up quickly in the debate last night. I think he would have trouble working with Republicans. And I think Secretary Clinton made it clear, she’s progressive, but she’s a pragmatic progressive that wants to get things done. And I don’t know, I think Bernie Sanders give off, at least, an impression that it’s my way or the highway. He always seems angry to me. He hollers. He seems very doctrinaire. And so, I think it’s a problem for Americans who are trying to get past the gridlock.

This opinion, that to be effective in office any Democrat who would replace Obama will have to be “pragmatic” instead of “doctrinaire,” is pretty common among our betters in the chattering class here in DC. Which is kind of amazing, given how completely it flies in the face of recent history.

Just look at the last seven years, the Barack Obama administration. The reason we have gridlock in Washington isn’t because Obama hasn’t been willing to offer Republicans half a loaf; the reason we have gridlock in Washington is because the Republicans made a strategic decision to refuse to work with him at all unless he gave them the whole thing. As long as they held at least one house of Congress, their thinking went, they didn’t have to compromise on anything — they could just refuse to pass any of his programs until he gave them everything they wanted. The result would be inaction, “gridlock,” but they calculated that people would blame the President for that more than they blamed Congress, so public pressure and his own frustration would eventually force his hand.

The results of that strategy have been mixed, but for the most part it has worked as they anticipated. It wasn’t enough to stop Obamacare from passing, but lots of other programs — including critical economic stimulus packages that would determine how fast the economy would recover from the 2008 financial crisis — had to either be shelved completely or retooled to satisfy Republican ideology. By turning governance into a game of “chicken” and throwing their own steering wheel out the window right at the start, the GOP has been much more effective politically than they had any right to imagine themselves being back on election night 2008.

It’s all very cynical, but I’m not here to discuss that. I’m here to discuss something else, namely that there is only one reason the GOP had a strategy like this in their arsenal. It was there because Barack Obama put it there.

Think back to the 2008 Presidential campaign. Back then, candidate Barack Obama made a very explicit strategic decision of his own: he decided to position himself, not as a Democrat or a progressive, but as a “post-partisan” candidate who could build a coalition across party lines:

“I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental changes, not small changes,” Obama said Saturday night. “I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don’t believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of health care, college education, don’t believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change.”

The consequences of this decision have been reverberating through our system ever since. It’s perhaps the single most critical decision in modern American politics, because it’s the decision that put that weapon of sheer stubborn rejectionism into the Republicans’ hands.

Any strategy, you see, contains within it a set of criteria by which its success or failure will be evaluated. (If you can’t tease such criteria out of it, it’s an abstraction, not a strategy.) For post-partisanship, the evaluation was simple: you would know whether it was succeeding by looking at how many Republicans Obama was bringing along with him. A “post-partisan” President would have to have at least some. If he didn’t — if he was only able to bring along with him those of his own party — his strategy would obviously be failing.

And this was the gift Barack Obama gave the GOP, because it made them the arbiters of whether his strategy was successful or not. To be successful, Obama needed Republican support — which meant that they could force him into failure, simply by withholding it. The only decision that mattered was the one he left to them to make. They seized upon this profound strategic error and have been exploiting it ever since.

Military strategists have a term for the gift that Obama gave the Republicans. They call it “initiative.”

In a battle, one side is usually actively driving things forward, guiding the shape and pace of the fight, while the other is responding, trying its best to keep up. The side that is driving things forward is said to “have the initiative.” Having the initiative is a critical factor in achieving victory, because once you have the initiative you can make sure that the battle plays out in ways that maximize your advantages and minimize your weaknesses. And if you don’t have the initiative, you’re going to be on the opposite side of that equation, fighting on terrain that favors the enemy at a time of their choosing.

You’re going to be losing, in other words. Which is why generals who have lost the initiative find themselves looking for ways to turn the tables — to wrest it from the hands of the enemy, and hold on to it. Losing the initiative doesn’t always mean losing the battle, but it certainly doesn’t help.

That’s why it was so frustrating, back in 2008, to see Barack Obama framing his candidacy in terms of “post-partisanship.” It meant watching him surrender the initiative. And he didn’t even make them fight for it! He just handed it over to them, right on a silver platter.

And that’s why it’s frustrating to see this same conventional wisdom being rolled out seven years later, and to see Hillary Clinton playing to it in the same way that Obama did way back then. “Pragmatic progressive” isn’t exactly the same as “post-partisan,” but it still takes the initiative and leaves it right on the GOP’s front doorstep, because if you’re defining success in terms of your ability to cut a deal with the other side, all the other side has to do is refuse to deal and you’ve officially failed. The battle is over before it’s even begun.

Maybe Hillary’s not smart enough to have learned this lesson, but you can be. When fighting your own battles, don’t look for ways to hand the initiative over to the other side. Look for ways to seize it, and hold it, and force anyone who wants to take it from you to dance to whatever tune you choose to play.