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To Dare to Do It

by Christopher Chantrill
December 18, 2004 at 7:00 pm


THE DUKE OF Wellington once defined the best test of a general.  It was, he wrote, “to know when to retreat, and to dare to do it.”  He should know, because he executed the most successful retreat in British history, from the battle of Talavera in central Spain that he had won in the summer of 1809 to the fortified Lines of Torres Vedras just outside Lisbon, capital of Portugal, for the winter.

We can understand why the courage “to dare to do it” is so important.  Anyone who retreats as the Duke did in the fall of 1809 immediately becomes an object of derision to the chattering classes.  There will be intrigues and talk of “quagmires.”  Newsweek’s conventional wisdom watch will show a down arrow.  Even if the retreat is successful, as the Duke’s retreat was, the chances have to be better than even that he will never survive the quagmire talk to advance subsequently to victory. 

In the last days of 2004 there must be a number of leading Democrats that know that the time has come for retreat.  The question is: who will dare to do it?

Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy reminded his troops of the first rule of politics.  Don’t get mad, get even.  He meant: don’t bother to get all riled up about the perfidy of evil Republicans unless you make sure that you are going to beat them.  Otherwise you are just whining.  In the aftermath of the election of 2000 Democrats had a choice.  They could concede the election and send their troops home to their comfortable billets in unions, faculty lounges, and yeasty Victorian neighborhoods, or they could rile them up with talk of theft and chicanery.  They chose the latter and the party base responded like the loyal foot soldiers they are.  They got mad.  They railed to the heavens against President Moron; they plastered their cars with ReDefeat Bush stickers; they turned out in droves to oppose the Iraq War; they wolfed down second and third helpings of CIA leaks and Abu Ghraib scandals.  And then they lost the election.  We are talking about the effectiveness of World War I generals here.

The time has come for Democrats to talk about retreat.  Ever since 1980 the Democrats have lacked a strategy.  They have had only an order of the day: Activists of the Democratic Party!  Hold your position!  Concede nothing!  To this day, Democrats rail against the Reagan tax cuts.  To this day they rail against the budget deficits.  To this day they remember Reagan as an amiable dunce.  They rail against social service cuts.  They are surly and silent about Welfare Reform, the Cold War, and Broken Windows Policing.  Now they are in the ridiculous position of insisting on an offensive à outrance on gay marriage, partial-birth abortion, and Social Security reform.  Sooner or later, just like in World War I, the troops are going to rebel against this mad strategy of endless offensive unless someone orders a retreat.  Who could that be?  Who has the authority, the coolness under pressure, the smarts to know that it is time to retreat. Above all, who has the courage to dare to do it?

The answer is obvious.  The Democratic savior is the presidential hopeful that’s already priced at 34 percent to win the Democratic nomination in 2008.  She enjoys the unquestioned loyalty of the troops no matter what she does or says.  She’s kept her powder dry on the Iraq War.  She can tell the gay mafia to cool it on gay marriage.  She can tell the feminists to retreat to a better defensive line than “late-term” abortion.  She can cut a deal with President Bush on Social Security reform and still roar back with some sort of universal health insurance plan in the spring of 2008.

The problem for Hillary Clinton is the same as the one that Bill Clinton had and that Tony Blair has in England.  The educated elite that forms her most vocal and committed support really believes in its political program that what’s good for the elite is good for the nation: the war on the family, the emasculation of men, the professionalization of women, peace and justice, no more war, and all the politicized science of environmentalism, global warming, AIDS, and rent-an-expert social science.  The New York Times readers hated the compromises that Bill Clinton made, and The Guardian readers hate the pragmatism of Tony Blair.  They have no clue how much trouble they are in.

So after she has managed the great retreat of 2004 to 2006, and after she has won the great victory of 2008 President Clinton will still face the problem of what the Democratic Party is for—beyond the vital national task of protecting the pensions and the sinecures of the party faithful.  But hey, why worry now about tomorrow, Scarlett?  “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

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