Political Hay

So Much for the Ideology of Tactics

Is the Clintons' reign as the King and Queen of political tactics finally over?

By 12.19.07

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Would a Hillary Clinton defeat end the reign of tactics as the third political ideology in America?

Once upon a time there was conservatism and liberalism. You were either into free markets and limited government, or you bought into the idea of lots of regulation and big government. There was a scale, of course, running from roughly libertarian to communist. If you fancied yourself a "moderate" you favored a little of each. National security ping-ponged for a while between isolationist Republicans and internationalist Democrats, with the roles reversing for good after 1968 and Vietnam.

Somewhere around the Nixon defeat of George McGovern in 1972, when liberalism began calcifying itself with a reputation as the philosophy of the "three A's" -- amnesty, acid and abortion -- Democrats wanting to actually win elections and be a governing majority began retreating from the image of liberals as virtual pacifists whose only political ideology revolved around legalizing drugs, committing free love and endlessly raising taxes to fund some of everything else. The very word "liberal" became so discredited that candidates for every office from the presidency to dogcatcher began shying from it.

In response (out of self-defense?) many Democrats began substituting something different as their ideology. Quietly dropping an open defense of liberalism, something else entirely began to occasionally win the day for Democrats -- transforming a love of elbows-out political tactics into a stand-alone if publicly unacknowledged ideology in and of itself.

Ahhh, tactics.

From the legendary Chinese General Sun Tzu, who wrote his famous work The Art of War some 2500 years ago, to the 19th century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, whose On War is a similarly classic text on military strategy, tactics have heretofore been thought of as a mere tool of war. Choosing from a limitless menu of options, you pick the ones that help you win. Eisenhower, for example, decided to land allied forces at Normandy instead of Calais, choosing one tactic over another as best suited to implementing his larger strategy for defeating Hitler. In the last few decades tactics have been pushed with the idea of using the works of both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz as blueprints applied to everything from presidential campaigns to selling widgets. The bookshelves of Barnes and Noble practically groan under the weight of earnest or irritatingly peppy tomes that involve a considerable focus on the most effective tactics to implement in a winning business, sport, or even a relationship.

One suspects, though, that neither Sun nor Clausewitz would ever have imagined the transformation of tactics into a modern day political ideology.

YET THIS IS PRECISELY what has happened in slow-motion fashion to American liberalism over the last several decades, as its growing unpopularity has made it increasingly difficult for successive Democratic presidential candidates to defend. While Bill and Hillary Clinton have emerged as the foremost believers and practitioners of this new ideology. they are certainly not alone. But as Senator Clinton's Iowa campaign implodes, with the potential of further damage ahead in New Hampshire and South Carolina leading to a once-impossible-to-perceive nomination defeat at the hands of Senator Barack Obama or even former Senator John Edwards, the peril of having tactical warfare as the core of an ideological belief is revealed for all to see. Again.

Consider the warning of Sun Tzu as he dwelt on the use of tactics: "...(H)e who is destined to defeat first fights and afterward looks for victory." In other words, if you fight first, if you heedlessly jump into a battle with your figurative guns blazing, then look for victory well after you are in the fight -- you are eventually destined for defeat.

Bearing Sun's wisdom in mind, what do the following events have in common?

Watergate. The Iran-Contra Affair. The Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas confirmation fights. Special prosecutors. The Plame Affair.

In each and every case liberals jumped into the fight first without thinking about what the fight meant in the long term, staking out a position on the issue in question that was based on nothing more than tactics. How do they bring down Nixon? What can they say to get Reagan? What if they smear Bork and Thomas? Demand special prosecutors? Frog march Karl Rove out of the White House? In every case -- and countless others -- the answer was purely tactical. And in every case this increasing reliance on the ideology of tactics came round to bite them. Disregarding Sun Tzu, they jumped to fight first and looked for victory later -- eventually regretting their decision.

Stake all on impeaching Nixon for lying? What then is the defense when Bill Clinton lies to a federal judge? Special prosecutors are inviolate guardians of the public trust who must not be criticized? How does one then credibly deal with Clinton's Ken Starr? Insist that Reagan's trust in finding Iranian moderates among the radical mullahs is, in the words of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, "stupid" and worthy of a Senate investigation? What then when George W. Bush agrees Iranians are not trustworthy -- and repeatedly warns they are on their way to getting nuclear weapons? Flatly and loudly proclaim that "women tell the truth" when speaking of sexual harassment and scheme to make this an issue in a Supreme Court confirmation? How then does one handle multiple allegations of sexual harassment against a white liberal president? Insist on a "right to privacy" and demand the repeal of the Patriot Act because it invades privacy? How then to defend a woman running for president who is said by her biographers to have been involved in investigations violating the privacy of women alleged to have been her husband's paramours?

And so on.

There is one, teensy, weensy bit of a problem here. A problem that became more and more obvious as time passed. If you live by the tactic, you can die by the tactic.

The sauce for Nixon's goose becomes the sauce for Clinton's gander. Cheers for Nixon's special prosecutorial nemesis Archibald Cox makes it difficult to credibly smear special prosecutor Starr as he uses Cox's precedents to impeach Clinton. If you make tactics your philosophy rather than points on a map to your philosophical destination, whether you understand it or not, whether you like it or not, that warming sensation you feel is the fire you have lit beneath your own political posterior.

Conservatism and liberalism are historically philosophies that revolve around principles. For better or worse, the idea of more or less government, a right to privacy or right to life, military strength or the lack thereof and much more, all can be connected directly to a specific approach to government. Politicians who support one or another of these philosophies are readily identifiable. To simply say the names Goldwater, Reagan, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, McGovern and so on is to quickly identify someone associated with a specific approach to public policy on one side of the track or the other. Your principles can and will be the subject of disagreement with your opposites, but they will never embarrass you into the role of appearing as someone who will "say anything" just to accomplish the objective of the moment.

ON THE SURFACE the ideology of tactics has a glittering appeal, so stunningly attractive, so easy, that modern liberals -- and even some conservatives -- have found it impossible to resist.

How does it work?

First, you need a hot political topic. Any subject will do. Then find the easy and opposite answer to whatever your opponent is doing or saying. Any opposite answer will do, the more extreme the better. You get lots of media coverage and damage can in fact be done to your opponent.

In the short term, the use of tactics as ideology almost always works. Nixon was forced to resign. Reagan brought perilously low. Bork was kept off the Court and Thomas was smeared. Scooter Libby was convicted. Only when the passage of time shows you up do people begin to finally catch on. Say, they realize as they learn about Bill Clinton and Paula Jones and Bill and Kathleen Willey and Bill and another woman and yet another and another, didn't liberals insist "women tell the truth" and demand men should be kept out of office for these kind of offenses? Didn't the fans of Valerie Plame indignantly insist CIA agents should absolutely have their identities protected at all costs? So what's wrong with the idea of CIA agents destroying tapes of themselves questioning terrorists? Shouldn't they be protected from Karl Rove and Scooter Libby-like members of Congress who might abuse their office by leaking the tapes to the New York Times or CBS? And so on.

Over time this approach has, doubtless unintentionally, helped highlight conservative principles for no other reason than that they remain consistent. If a conservative believes in a strong national security -- peace through strength -- then his or her approach to Iraq is refreshingly predictable. Stable. If conservatives oppose activist judges -- they believe it no matter who is nominating judges. If they love Bush nominees for their presumed adherence to conservative principles of judging, they have no fear in opposing a Bush appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court for precisely the same reason -- they believed she would not do so. If, on the other hand, conservatives campaign for limited government and against government waste -- then, elected, proceed to gorge on earmarks and pork, anger and a conservative backlash is sure to follow, making a 2006-style electoral defeat predictable.

This explains, in part, the popularity of talk radio. Conservative hosts present themselves as reliable champions of a governing philosophy. Discussing tactics... they are not all about the latest tactic.

This also explains why someone like 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry flip-flops. His famous comment about his vote on an Iraq War appropriation, that he was actually against it before he was for it, is not simply vintage Kerry but vintage tactical ideology. If he really felt comfortable publicly defending his liberalism he would have voted against it -- and voted against it again. So too does it explain why Hillary does her tactical dance on licenses for illegal immigrants.

LEAVE IT TO BILL AND HILLARY Clinton to make the most of tactics as ideology. They spent eight years in the White House establishing themselves as the veritable King and Queen of Tactics. What, after all was Bill Clinton's famous "triangulation" all about if not governing by tactic? One of the lesser noted aspects of the Clinton years when they departed the White House was the permanent impression husband and wife made with the public about their willingness to say -- and do -- anything to gain and retain power. From triangulation and the so-called "third way" to the signing of a Newt Gingrich welfare reform bill to the conjuring of a "vast right wing conspiracy" -- each and every one of these were nothing more than Clintonian adherence to the ideology of tactics. This, of course, is exactly what was at the heart of Bill Clinton's recent statement in Iowa that he was opposed to the Iraq War right from the start, when the record, much of it on videotape, clearly says the opposite. His description of his position on Iraq was just one more tactic in a decade and a half long parade of Clinton tactics, this one designed to get votes for his wife.

So comes now candidate Hillary Clinton and her losing poll numbers to two opposition Democrats -- two guys who insist on campaigning on out-and-out modern liberal principles of class envy and variants of pacifism, two of the pillars of the usually much hidden liberal ideology. Her response? To stand on her platform of tactics as ideology: Obama said he wanted to be president in kindergarten, Obama as Muslim, Obama as drug dealer, Billy Sheehan as unauthorized spokesman etc. etc. etc.

Hillary Clinton is finally being called to account for the accumulated sins of all those liberals who abandoned a vigorous public defense of liberalism as they found it post-McGovern. She is not responsible for the ideology of tactics, nor is her husband. But they are both individually -- not to mention collectively -- its most famous believers and ferocious practitioners as everyone from Paula Jones to Barack Obama has discovered..

Die-hard liberals in America have finally become fed up with the game. Nixon and Reagan are dead. Thomas is on the Court to stay. Special prosecutors are blessedly a relic (mostly) of the past, they could care less about sexual harassment and it is time, from their MoveOn.org perch, to just say it flat out: we're mad as hell about this kind of game-playing from our liberal leaders and we're not going to take it anymore. Thus Obama and Edwards surge.

The ideology of tactics is taking a beating in Iowa as we head into the Christmas break. And so is Hillary Clinton.

The King and Queen of the ideology of tactics, it is suddenly realized with a collective gasp by the media, have no philosophically principled clothes. Slowly it begins to dawn. Maybe -- just maybe -- the Iowa caucuses and the 2008 primary season are signaling something significant.

The end of an era.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.