Jim DeMint believes health care will be the President’s Waterloo:
He may be right…but I’m not sure Waterloo is the metaphor he thinks it is.
If DeMint is looking for an example of Napoleonic overstretch, I assume he wants a major battle from the Russian campaign, two and a half years earlier. Unfortunately for sound bites, however, there was no massive Russian victory. The Russians lost the battles. It didn’t matter. The Grande Armee was worn down by the sheer impossibility of the mission; Minard‘s chart remains the best explanation:
There are plenty of examples of empires squandered through doubling down on inconsequential battles: the Athenians staking everything on the Sicilian Expedition, the Japanese recklessly continuing the Chinese invasion, the US abandoning Al Qaeda to pick a fight with Iraq…
Waterloo was a different story. Napoleon had just escaped from Elba and the man sent to capture him – the man who vowed to bring him back to Paris in an iron cage, Michel Ney – had defected to Napoleon’s side, leading to Napoleon’s triumphal return to the Palais Royal. Perhaps Napoleon could have run France peacefully; he promised that he would, but it seems hard to believe that someone who lived for the glory of conquest would give it up. In the event, the rest of Europe was not going to wait to find out. The British landed an army under Wellington and the Prussian army under Blucher moved to join it.
Wellington had 67,000 men. Blucher had 48,000. The Russians and Austrians were on the march to provide further reinforcements. Napoleon could barely scrape together 69,000. He had only one option, and it was improbable at best: race to Belgium, catch the British army by itself, defeat it, turn against the Prussian army, defeat it, and then hope this created enough deterrent to keep others from coming.
You will note that this path-dependent long-shot approach should be comforting to the man from Hawaii. If primaries were one-day affairs in January 2008, Hillary Clinton would have crushed Barack Obama to set up her November encounter with Mitt Romney. The only path for Obama to win was to make absolutely certain he took Iowa, then build off of his momentum in Iowa to go to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, etc, building momentum off of each contest.
Back to Belgium. Napoleon arrived to something like this:
Amazingly, on the first day Napoleon’s plan worked. His advance forces won battles at Quatre-Bras (against the British) and Ligny (against the Prussians). Then things went downhill. Wellington simply retreated to a defensive position he had previously scouted. Napoleon looked for him, again overrunning British units, but by the time he was in position to deploy his main force against Wellington, it was late afternoon and a tremendous rainstorm was upon them. Both armies waited outside the town of Waterloo.
A younger, more impulsive Napoleon might have insisted on fighting right then and there. A younger, more impulsive Napoleon might have insisted on fighting in the morning. But the Napoleon who stood across from Wellington in 1815 wanted to be able to move his artillery, and he needed the roads to dry. So he waited, and all the while Blucher’s Prussian army came closer.
It was 10:00am before Napoleon gave the go code, nearly noon before things really got going. And for all the monuments to Wellington in London, the battle trended in Napoleon’s direction. French forces suffered mightily from mistakes large (no infantry support for cavalry attacks on defensive squares) and small (failure to spike captured British cannon), but in time the British position at La Haye Sainte crumbled, and with it the ability for the British to hold their ground.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, it was too late. The Prussians had reached the field, and he had shot his bolt. The French army broke; by 9:00pm Wellington and Blucher had linked up, and Napoleon was on the retreat that would take him to St. Helena.
If Jim DeMint wants to cast Obama in the role of Napoleon at Waterloo, so be it. The lesson is to seize a unique opportunity. Obama is popular, the consensus voice of reason, and the country is focused on health care. The Republican party is bereft of both leaders and ideas:
It won’t last forever. The insurance industry is on the defensive right now, but they will refine their scare tactics. The Blue Dogs will feel more comfortable stalling. The deficit will rise as the stimulus spending takes hold, and while that may improve the economy, it will give the Republicans a scary number with which to attack any plan. And bipartisanship, apart from giving a few centrists unwarranted holdup power, is a fool’s errand for the simple reason that it is not in the Republican’s interest to go along with anything. If health care works, it will be the Obama plan that works; if health care fails, hey, we were all in this together. Mitch McConnell doesn’t need to call people in the Kerry Administration to figure out how that movie ends. Furthermore, no one really cares how a bill passes. The April 2001 Bush tax cuts passed 51-50, with Cheney casting the decisive vote; the budget was just as destroyed as if the vote had been unanimous.
Perhaps most importantly, as time passes people will get used to an Obama Administration without health care reform. Just as a false alarm saps energy for a real emergency, spending much of 2008 and 2009 talking about health care reform and not doing anything in the end will seem like the new normal. It’s getting time.
Obama has an advantage Napoleon rarely enjoyed: superiority in numbers. With majorities in the House and the Senate, he can force reform through. And while Obama’s triumphs leave little room for outside critique, here is the flaw I see in his strategy so far:
Obama – or at least his team – are determined to have a victory on health care. They do not want to say what they want, except in the most general terms, because they know that the Senate will give them something, and whatever that something is, they want to trumpet as a victory. If they say “there needs to be a public option administered by Medicare”, they know they need to deliver it or lose face. And, as we saw with their vigorous attempt to talk up the markets after FOX began the “markets are falling on Obama’s watch meme,” they are incredibly sensitive to criticism.
However, every day that he refuses to say what he wants, he lets Max Baucus give it away for him. Originally, Obama wanted single payer but would settle for the public option as a concession to political reality. Now the public option is the reach and medical coops are the concession to political reality. Soon enough, the medical coops are going to have to operate independently from each other and reimburse on the private insurance schedule, just with a much worse customer pool. There will be rules against raiding private insurers, community rating will apply only to the coop, subsidies will be forbidden, and there will be no mechanism to pay for any of this.
Sure, Obama will get it, and his advisors will proudly trumpet the victory. But where does that leave him in 2012? The system will fail; the only debate is whether it will go with a bang (outrageous cost overruns) or a wimper (it applies to so few people it is stillborn). Either way, the failure will follow him around like a chicken at a campaign rally.
By contrast, if Obama goes on offense now, he will probably win a system he wants, a system he can believe will deliver enough benefits that it can be the hallmark of his next campaign. If he loses, he runs against the DC lobbyists who kept the American people from getting health care; it’s not as if the system is going to miraculously fix itself by 2012. Above all, he needs seize and hold the initiative. And that’s a lesson Jim DeMint should keep close to his vest.