I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you... But you must act. -- Abraham Lincoln
In the spring of 1862, the vast army of the United States was gathered on the Virginia Peninsula. Landed by a massive and lengthy amphibious operation that was a testimony to the North's military and industrial might, the army had been brought to this swampy ground with the stated intention of "leaping" up the peninsula to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. The army's commander, General George McClellan, had trained and equipped his troops like no force in history. They were by far the largest, best equipped, best prepared, most formidable army on the face of the earth.
But as weeks wore on and more and more forces joined McClellan's camp, the army did not leap. Neither did it walk, or even crawl. It sheltered near Ft. Monroe, under the protection of gunboats and artillery, and waited. When frustration brought President Lincoln to write the letter urging McClellan to move, there were already more than 100,000 men in the Union force. Soon it would be over 120,000.
Facing them was a force of 13,000 men under Confederate General John Magruder. Magruder's small force put on a show of marching around and trying to look larger. They made "cannons" out of painted logs and placed them so that they were visible to the Union forces. Had McClellan moved, his men could have easily overrun Magruder's troops and marched on toward Richmond. But McClellan didn't move.
Day after day, week after week, the leader of the grand army of the United States sat in the mud and rain, looking up the peninsula. The combination of the Southern antics, bad information, and his own fears convinced the Union general that the opposing force was actually larger than his own.
As as they waited, the Confederates had time to gather, to plan, and to dig in for the fight.
At the start of 2010, Democrats held the House, the White House, and a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. They were put there by the largest, most energized, most committed electorate ever assembled. They were funded in large part by a broad base of individual donations that left them extraordinarily free to pursue policies without the threat of losing money supplied through a few select large donors. The electorate that had placed them in power knew well enough the policies they represented and the change they wanted to implement, and that electorate awarded them with majorities not seen in forty years.
Opposing them was a fading Republican Party whose policies had brought on a decade of disaster complete with unfinished wars, a crumbling economy, and intentional mismanagement of issues from health care to the environment. The combination of unrepentant greed, xenophobia, and brutality that is conservatism had proven no more practical in this application than it had in previous attempts, and the GOP was reduced to a boiling mix of regional interests confined to the South East and busy with their own internal struggles.
Democrats were primed to go on the offense. Ahead of them was a raft of issues: the right of workers to organize, universal health care, restriction of greenhouse gases, the creation of jobs, the regulation of an financial sector run amok, the reversal of laws that promote bias and hatred, the resolution of those bungled wars, rolling back a tide of eroded civil rights, and restraining the growing economic gap between a few elites and the vast majority of Americans. No party had faced so great a challenge -- or had so great an opportunity -- in more then seventy years. There was quite literally nothing to fear but their own shadows and nothing in their way but their own egos.
Sadly, that proved more than sufficient.
Despite having greater numbers than any party since the Watergate years, Democrats stared up the peninsula and somehow became convinced that those guys over there -- the ones whose big corporate-sponsored march on Washington netted fewer people than the Kimmswick Missouri Apple Butter Festival -- were somehow to be feared. Democrats winced at every shout. Sulked at every insult. Retreated at every opportunity. A little marching around and a few painted signs was all it took to send them flying into the arms of Fox News to beg for quarter.
This past week, what I'd like to think is the ultimate expression of the Please Kick Me Party came in this statement by Senator Claire McCaskill
"As I said to somebody last night:, everybody needs to get the Washington wax out of their ears and listen and pay attention that people out there believe that we are going too far, too fast."
As it happens, I've met McCaskill. I've shaken her hands on any number of occasions around Missouri, volunteered on two of her campaigns, talked with her at the 2008 convention, and toasted her at victory parties. In my long career as a knocker on doors and hander out of pamphlets, the only punch I've ever received came from someone who was offended that I had stepped onto his porch to talk about Claire McCaskill.
All of that doesn't add up to close friendship, but I think I can feel comfortable enough to speak frankly in saying this: Senator McCaskill -- Claire -- that is the single most foolish thing I've heard from someone not suffering a major concussion. If you've managed to get wax out of your ears, you've surely replaced it with the brand of patented bullshit available nowhere else but Washington. Is this the kind of advice your staff is giving you? You could have come to a better understanding of the national mood by studying the entrails of a sheep.
The people "out there" believe you're going "too far, too fast?" Tell me, Senator, where the hell have you gone?
It shouldn't have to be spelled this simply, but here's a few bits of advice for you and the rest of the quaking 59 vote "minority" in the Senate:
1. Fortune favors the bold. -- Latin proverb
It does not favor the moderate, looking for compromise, back-peddler. It doesn't favor the fair weather adventurer who accepts the accolades on Tuesday, but runs from dark clouds on Friday. There is no reward -- not this week, not next November, not ever -- for walking away from the ideas that got you elected. If you sit on the side of the river and worry that it might be deep, you will lose the race to those unafraid to plunge in and swim. Every time.
2. I never worry about action, but only inaction -- Winston Churchill
Notice how much political flack you're taking over the Lilly Ledbetter legislation? In case you don't have a calculator handy, the answer is zero. You don't get attacked for the things you've done, because what you've actually done is easy to defend, of demonstrable value, and has advocates. You get attacked for things you done. For promises you haven't fulfilled. When you don't get something finished, you're leaving it for your opponents to define the scary, scary things you might do, and you're giving your supporters no reason to stay supporters. And that means you lose. Every time. The reason you're taking heat on the health care bill is because . Every completed goal is a plus, every unfinished goal a negative, and every day that you leave work undone is a day where you're open to attack.
3. A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week -- George Patton
Delay is the boon companion of defeat. You can't take a month off to tongue-bathe Chuck Grassley, another month to plan those Olympia Snowe ticker-tape parades, and a couple of months to bask in the glory that is Joe Lieberman and expect the nation to wait on you. There is a line between a deliberative body and one that's merely self-indulgent. Guess which side of the line you're on. The one that loses. Every time. If you'd tried this kind of crap around LBJ, you'd be nursing a limp for life. Momentum is everything. Accomplishments are everything.
4. If you see the President, tell him from me that whatever happens there will be no turning back. -- Ulysses S. Grant
Here's a shocker: people know that politicians aren't always strictly truthful. They know you're going to over-promise, under-deliver, and occasionally outright fib. And we're OK with that. But here's the other half of the equation: have to believe it when you say it. People will vote for people they don't agree with, but they will not vote for people who don't believe their own statements. If you believe in Democratic principles, then stop running away from them. Stop treating the worst dog-eat-dog aspects of corporatism like they're the foundation of America, and stop shying away from every charge of socialism like you can catch cooties from the word. Stand and fight. Or lose. Every time. You want to know what political suicide looks like? It looks like a politician stirring the tea leaves to see if the polls support doing the right thing. If you think it's the right thing, do it. If not, don't. If you're not doing the right thing because you think Mr. Gallup advises against it, you're dead meat. It's unacceptable to blame your own lack of guts on the voters.
5. Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit -- Stonewall Jackson
You may have heard of this thing called the Overton Window. Yeah, it's an well-trampled idea, but we're being brief here. Thing is, the Republicans have been pushing, and pushing, and pushing that window to the right. I want you to stop and think for a second: when's the last time you or any other legislator offered a new suggestion for making the nation more progressive? I don't mean finding some spot in the middle of the window, some compromise that's a mile and half right of what was called conservative a decade ago. When's the last time you said something the right didn't expect? What idea have you offered that wasn't already dusty in the Truman administration? Come up with something new. Something that makes the nation more egalitarian. A move that says not only is the government more important to the well-being of its citizens than the price of imported tube socks at Walmart, it can be an instrument of our best intentions. Stop defining yourself and your issues in the terms handed to you by the talking heads. Because if you don't have something new to offer, you're going to lose. Every time.
6. A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both. -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
This one may be hard for you to grasp, but I'll make a stab at it. Your election wasn't the goal. No, really, I'm serious about this. It was a means to an end. We didn't put you there because we like you, splendid person that you may be. We put you there to accomplish things. You may believe that being a "moderate," hunkering down, and throwing bones to the people who didn't vote for you will guarantee your continued access to hot meals at the cafeteria and all the free stamps you can use. But as you may recall, the people who did vote for you are the majority. That's sort of how you got there. If you start disregarding us in favor of them... let's just say there's a reason the word "moderate" is so often coupled with the word "embattled." If you really want to have some staying power and impact up there, stop thinking about your career and start thinking about your accomplishments. Sooner or later "moderates" miss a step in their attempt to appease and lose. Every time.
7. It's a disagreeable thing to be whipped. -- William Tecumseh Sherman
The only good news at the moment is that you are not whipped. Better still, you're ahead. The real trouble is you've decided to solve the situation by taking shots at your own goal. Keep it up and you're not going to just lose (every time), you're going to get laughed out of town. Then you can come home, sit on your porch, and mumble about how all the people that voted to put you in office just didn't understand what the people "out there" wanted.
When McClellan's huge force finally began it's advance, Macgruder's much smaller army slipped away. The Union army crept through forests, past small towns, and across rivers, harried at frequent intervals by Confederate outriders. As the forces drew closer to the Confederate capital, the clashes grew larger and more frequent. Finally Joseph Johnston, the commanding general on the Southern side, took a gamble. He pulled nearly all the 60,000 men from the defense of Richmond and threw them against the Northern army at a place where that army was split by a swollen river. From the Confederate perspective, the battle was at best a wash. Both sides took similar losses while Johnston was wounded and removed from command. When it was over McClellan's force still vastly outnumbered the Confederates. But they didn't act like it.
The advance up the peninsula was halted again, and McClellan wrote "I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost." That was too bad, because with Johnston out of commission the Southern command was settled on General Robert E. Lee. When McClellan tentatively began to advance again, Lee attacked.
The two armies fought six major battles in seven days. Most of those battles were solid Union victories. At the start of the fight Lee had about 1/2 as many men as McClellan. At the end of the fighting Lee was left defending Richmond with a force that was about 1/4 the size of the opposing troops. But it didn't matter. McClellan retreated from every fight. He backed his men away along the peninsula they'd spent all spring taking, put them on boats, and sailed away. The war would last another three years, and take the lives of another half a million Americans. The North would not find victory until it found a commander willing to stand in and slug it out.
So Claire, Harry, all those wondering whether maybe now is the time to see if they they can get in on that sweet affection the right is showing to Parker Griffin: whether you're sick of the battlefield, or just sick of being called names on talk radio, defeatism brings with it one sure thing -- defeat. We put you there to , dammit, and we expect results.
And really, I have never written you in greater kindness, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you. But you must act.