WASHINGTON, D.C. - Surveying the year ahead in politics and government, it strikes me that a military model is the most descriptive device.
It might seem that is true every year, but it isn’t actually. The dynamic is often different after presidential elections, especially for first-timers; when the commander-in-chief is seen to have a mandate, governing is more like governing, less like campaigning -- and combat. The same holds when the usually combatant parties have a modest consensus that there’s a Big Problem to address – a global mini-depression, a war or a terrorism panic.
None of those conditions apply this year. In the absence of noble goals, more base instincts prevail and combat ensues.
What is victory?
The politico-military objective of the War of 2015 is to capture territory decisively – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the end, the armies, Republican and Democrat, do not have much control over the final and decisive battles. That belongs to the chosen candidates.
What the armies will try to do in 2015 is stake out high ground, which is measured by approval ratings for their top generals and the alignment of the parties’ positions with popular opinion. The armies also will marshal ammunition, that is, money; and they’ll secure the supply lines to reliable benefactors.
Finally, the two sides will attempt to secure momentum. Momentum is an amorphous battlefield tactic focused more on the onlookers than the soldiers. It is described by phrases such as credibility, unity and being in touch with the voters.
Conventional wisdom, which charts military superiority in the absence of hard casualty counts and topographical amps, now holds that the key to the GOP’s tactical success in 2015 is to establish that the party “can govern.” That is a tall order, since the president is still a Democrat.
‘Don’t be scary’
But General Mitch McConnell has given The Washington Post a much more candid and realistic plan of battle.
“I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome. I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority,” he told the Post before Christmas.
How not to be scary includes things like avoiding a government shutdown, leaders avoiding white supremacist groups and generally appeasing the Tea Party squadron based in the House of Representatives.
As the battle opens, I do think McConnell has a clearer doctrine than General Obama. Obama does have some second-tier policy objectives we’ll look at later. Beyond that, his army seems to have adopted the doctrine of “avoid doing stupid stuff.” And it appears they’d like to goad the GOP into doing scary stuff, following the adage attributed to Napoleon, “Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.”
The key maneuver for Obama’s army is to hold it’s ground on health care and financial regulation.
The War of 2015 will not be a convention war.
Yes, there are two main grand armies, Republicans and Democrats, uniformed in red and blue. But there are also militias and guerilla units involved.
The key militias are the campaign organizations of the major presidential candidates. The Hillary Battalion is obviously the largest, most organized and well funded. As the year progresses, the media and perpetrators of Convention Wisdom will become more and more interested in this force than General Obama’s.
If no well-armed second militia emerges this year, the Democrats will essentially have two armies in the field at year’s end though their levels of coordination may be weak. On the other hand, if Colonel Clinton stumbles, the replacement ranks are painfully thin.
The GOP has no full militia yet, but corps of Minutemen assembling at bases across the country. Jeb Bush’s Tallahassee Corps looks the strongest and could power up fast. Rand Paul’s Kentucky Mountain Men are not far behind. Recruiters also are gathering troops for Christie’s New Jersey Dragoons, Rubio’s Florida Flotilla and Perry’s Texas Rangers. One could add four or five more names to the list.
Below the militia level are the guerillas.
On the Republican side, the well-organized guerillas are commanded by big money warlords such as the Koch brothers, gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson and puppet master Karl Rove.
Then you have the real, street level guerillas, the remnants of the Tea Party Brigade. They have a loud contingent in Congress and commitment to keeping the GOP scary.
In the blue uniforms, the guerillas are in full retreat. There are potential warlords such as Tom Steyer, George Soros and even master fundraiser Harry Reid, but their field skills don’t match the Republicans.
There is no equivalent of the Tea Part on the grass roots level. Social Senator Bernie Sanders is a caucus of one.
But there is a more dispersed set of strike forces on the state level fighting skirmishes on gay marriage and legalizing marijuana. Their successes are not trivial.
The fronts: Congress
There are three key fronts: Congress, courts and state legislatures.
In Congress, the first tier objectives of the Red Army are rolling back the Affordable Care Act as well as financial regulations and oversights and Obama’s immigration putsch. These are big objectives with high risks of casualties and long odds.
The Blue Army is just trying to hold ground, unless General Obama announces a stunt maneuver in his State of the Union.
There will be a good measure of skirmishing in Congress around three matters that will come to be known as The Possibles.
The Possibles are areas where the two parties have some broad agreement among their centrists and deep support among close civilian observers: tax reform, international trade and infrastructure investment.
So, for example, there will be great winds of debate over using the drop in oil prices to impose a gas tax that would pay for new highways and airports. These are areas where the armies could show they can govern. They could.
The Supreme Court will again see bloody combat on challenges to the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, at a minimum.
Republicans already have started maneuvers around lower courts to roll back Obama’s executive action on immigration and carbon emissions. There are likely to be further challenges to regulation campaign finance as well.
Many of these same battles also will be fought in state legislatures that turned a lot redder after the November elections. Republican forces will try to unravel Obama’s moves of health care, immigrations and carbon emissions. Blue militias will continue to push for gay marriage and legalization of marijuana.
Both sides will try hard to avoid foreign entanglements. Similarly, they will try to march around huge, treacherous quagmires like economic inequality, gun violence and racial issues in law enforcement.
My best guess is that there will be a lot of blood shed, that the biggest battle will be one we can’t foresee and that the baseball will be improved by an influx of Cuban ringers. At ease, troops.