Political Tactics In Conflict With Political Goals

Although people often get them confused, tactics are what you plan to do to win the battle at hand, and rather specific, while strategy has to do with why you’re fighting the battle in the first place – you have your strategic aims, those things you wish to accomplish, and a general concept of how to get there from here. You may have a geopolitical strategy for example – a way to make the world the way you want it to be. And thus one level above your strategy is your goal, or your goals. There are three layers.

Of course some specific tactics – ridiculing your opponents and telling them to bring it on, breaking the rules and torturing people even if you know all the torture provides no useful information but pleases the angry and panicked folks on the home front and will get your side reelected, and mocking your allies when they offer alternatives to you, or terrorizing a hapless foreign population to keep them out of the way – all these may conflict with your overall strategy. And of course they screw up your chances of reaching your goals. So, ideally, your tactics should be aligned with your general strategy, which should be aligned with your goals. But of course in the heat of things this all gets jumbled up.

For eight years the Bush administration managed to confuse all three levels – ask a question about specific tactics and you’d get an answer about general strategy, and ask about the general strategy and they’d talk about specific tactics, and ask about goals – what we were trying to accomplish – and you’d get all sorts of different answers, depending on which year you asked the question. We disarmed Saddam Hussein, so can we go home now? No, we have to get a government up and running over there and get these people to vote. Okay, we did that, so can we go home now? No, we have to finance and arm and equip and train their new military, so they, on their own, can keep the bad guys away. Okay, we’ve pretty much done that, more or less, so can we go home now? No, they’re not quite ready just yet, and anyway, we have to show we don’t cut and run. But they asked us to leave, so can we go home now? No, they still need us, but can’t say that publicly, because their own people would be angry, so they really were just posturing, you see.

And on it goes – those who thought the whole Iraq thing was a boneheaded idea would find themselves saying that they agreed with the overall goal, do something useful about terrorism, but didn’t think much of the overall strategy – occupy Iraq. Others realized we were occupying Iraq anyway, so that was a moot point, but they didn’t think much of the current tactics – busting down doors and intimidating anyone we could, followed by that “surge” and a parallel effort to buy off the truculent Sunnis who had been tossed out of power and were pissed and planting bombs, followed by clear and hold and win hearts and minds and be all diplomatic, with our highly-trained deadly soldiers having tea with the local elders, which they don’t cover at West Point. And no one ever quite knew at which level they were talking.

And if you want to add another layer to this, a fourth layer, General Patton once said that “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.” Yep, no matter what you do, you don’t want to run out of food, fuel and ammo. That’s too easy to overlook. That complicates things further.

In short, it was eight years of muddled and misaligned thinking. Some asked the big question. What’s the point? Others asked specific questions. What do we gain by torturing people? And few asked the most painful question. What are we talking about at the moment?

But then domestic politics are no different. We seem to be in a period of very clever tactics, but muddled strategy and unclear goals. You see some politician saying something rather stupid, which he knows is stupid, but which he considers a good tactic – it puts the other side on the spot. The clever sound-bite is a tactic – Michele Bachmann saying we now have a “gangster government” and that she wants her constituents “armed and dangerous.” But is this part of an overall general strategy directed toward a specific goal? Is it civil war? No one quite knows. She may not know. And no one quite knows what Sarah Palin is saying at any given time. She speaks Alaskan. And her speech the day she just up and quit her job as governor up there made no sense to anyone. Even those on the right were puzzled when she said, over and over, that she had to quit because she wasn’t a quitter. Hell, maybe she was talking about logistics. No one knew.

But a recent odd tactic can be found in this video montage assembled by Ryan Grim and Ben Craw. It’s from Tuesday, April 20, and shows Democrats on the Senate floor trying to break what Grim and Craw call a logjam – there are over one hundred executive branch nominees backed up. There will be no votes on any of them as some senator in each case has put a secret “courtesy” hold on the specific nomination in question. A hold is a threat that an objection will be made to a unanimous consent request to proceed to a vote on the nomination, so don’t even try. A senator can in secret, and politely, warn his or her colleagues that he or she plans on gumming up the works, and his or her colleagues can then back off, and no one gets embarrassed. It’s a backroom thing. No one knows what really happened.

But it is hard to run a government when each and every executive branch nomination has been put on hold. No one is confirmed by the Senate, no one at all. Key positions don’t get filled. Eventually the government stops working. But it’s hard to see what the goal is. Is it a paralyzed government? That might be, so the Republicans can point to the Obama folk and say see, these jokers don’t know how to run anything, because things are shutting down. But you don’t want the government to shut down. That’s not good for anyone.

But the Democrats are fighting back. They’ve had enough of this and forced through a new Senate rule that makes “secret holds” more difficult – now a senator is required to publicly declare his or her hold six legislative days after the nominee is brought to the floor. The courtesy hold is still there. It’s just not secret any longer.

And Grim and Craw take it from there:

Republican have holds on scores of nominees, so Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) went to the floor to call up the names, knowing that the GOP would object.

When Whitehouse began, however, the Republicans had failed to show and Whitehouse threatened to ram them all through if they didn’t arrive.

“For the record, I’m informed that the minority was aware that I was coming to make these unanimous consent requests, that they had full knowledge that this was going to come, and if they are unable to get somebody to the floor to object, that is, as far as I’m concerned, not my concern,” said Whitehouse.

And then Minority Whip Jon Kyl magically arrived, but it did no good. Whitehouse read off the names of five nominees, followed by McCaskill, who read off seventeen, and then she returned later in the day and read seventy-five more. If no one is there to confirm their hold, on record, in six days it will be deemed that there is no hold. All hundred or more nominations get an up-or-down vote. The clock is ticking.

Grim and Craw point out that the Republicans may be able “to wiggle out of going public by dropping their holds and picking them right back up, or teaming up with other Republicans and swapping the holds back and forth.”

Yep, they can restart the six-day clock over and over and over, and no one will ever know, on record, just who put which nomination on hold again. They can keep key positions in the administration vacant. No trade representative for this, no administrator for that, no head for the TSA or anything else. And things may never get done that should be done because the government isn’t staffed-up. But there will be no specific Republican to blame for that. There will be no fingerprints anywhere. It’s a cool new tactic, never been tried before.

But it’s just a tactic. Of course it is aligned with the strategy making Obama look incompetent, or if he does any more recess appointments – bypassing the Senate confirmation follies – they can say he’s a tyrant who arrogantly defies the elected representatives of the people. They got him either way. But the goal, to somehow remove him from office, or at least break him and neuter him, involves trashing the government. And that would be trashing the government while claiming you’re the ones fit to govern, not the other guys, and you really want the government to work well.

And the analogs are odd. We had to destroy the village to save it. We will bomb the snot out of Iraq and they will welcome us as liberators. When everything is tactics you can lose your sense of the overall strategy, and as for your overall goal… what was that exactly, to prove you’re the competent ones? It’s very odd.

And of course the same thing was happening with financial reform. There was a lot chest-pounding that this must be stopped – Mitch McConnell saying it was time to start all over. Everything proposed by the Democrats was garbage, and we should all step back and start from scratch, and make it a bipartisan bill, sometime later in the year, or next year. But that didn’t work out. That was the word from April 16 through April 19, then on the next day Senator Richard Shelby, the Republican from Alabama, one of the lead negotiators on the bill, just gave it all up and acknowledged this – “We’re very close to a deal and there will be a substantial number of Republicans that go along with it.”

What? What happened? The sure-fire hammer ’em with sound-bites tactic was suddenly abandoned?

At Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler and Christina Bellantoni report that Republican senators weren’t prepared to look like pouting kids throwing another tantrum on this one:

Key Republicans, sincere about passing new rules for Wall Street, but intimidated by the notion of blocking financial regulatory reform, let it be known to their leadership that, at some point, they would side with Democrats to break a filibuster. Maybe not on round one, or even round two. But eventually.

“Folks on our side of the aisle want a bill,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told me and a few other reporters Monday night. “I know that. I just [had a] discussion with some of our leadership on the floor. You know, we want a bill.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) made it equally clear: if top-level negotiations broke down, she and other members would find a solution. “I think it’s important to continue between the two principals on the committee, because that’s where it’s likely to happen,” Snowe told reporters yesterday afternoon. “But if not then we’ll take things as they come. We’ll take the next step.”

This afternoon, entering a Republican caucus meeting, the Republican Deputy Whip John Thune candidly acknowledged that the politics just aren’t playing out for the GOP, and that members don’t want to take a tough vote against regulating Wall Street.

It’s one thing to block every single executive branch nomination – it’s fun, and no one knows just who blocked whom for which position – but people are pissed at Wall Street. You change your tactics when what you’re doing makes you look like a fool and makes everyone despise you. Yes, someone should have told George Bush, but it’s too late for that now.

Steve Benen picks it up from there:

In other words, Dems’ expectations were actually correct on this one.

Evidence that the GOP is “softening its opposition” to financial regulatory reform is apparent in more than just rhetoric and renewed negotiations.

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted this afternoon, for example, to approve Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-Ark.) aggressive measure to tighten regulation of derivatives trading. In an unexpected development, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted with Democrats in support of the proposal, further evidence that the GOP is no longer marching in lock-step when it comes to bringing new safeguards to Wall Street.

When something looks foolish it’s best to stop doing it, of course, especially if the overall goal is to prove you’re not the foolish guys, the Democrats are. And if you keep saying reform is necessary, it’s best not to try to stop it, and brag about how you’re trying to stop it.

So Blanche Lincoln’s legislation to rein in derivatives trading passed its first hurdle:

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday approved legislation to tighten regulation of derivatives trading, with a single Republican, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, joining Democrats in supporting the measure. The vote was 13 to 8.

The defection of Mr. Grassley, who is the senior Republican on the Finance Committee and is up for re-election, illustrated the increasingly difficult political position for Republicans in opposing the legislation… His vote to support the measure underscored the potential political peril in opposing tighter rules for Wall Street, at a time of public frustration over the return of huge earnings and blockbuster bonuses even as unemployment remains high and the economy struggles to recover in much of the country.

Kevin Drum comments:

Originally I didn’t take Lincoln’s proposal seriously. It seemed like it was just a stalking horse, a way for her to look tough and get some good hometown headlines even while knowing that it would quickly get watered down. And that might still happen, of course. Her derivatives language still has to survive a merger with the Banking Committee bill, a vote on the Senate floor, and then the conference report. The odds of coming through all that unscathed are pretty remote.

But… you never know. Republicans are obviously feeling some heat on this, and it’s not as though anyone outside of Wall Street has any sympathy for the derivatives industry. For now, this remains a possible bright spot on the financial reform horizon.

But wait. What about the Tea Party crowd? As Steve Benen explains in this item, “this is a matter at the core of many of their ostensible concerns – powerful elites, acting irresponsibly, ignoring the needs of the American mainstream, generating devastating consequences for everyone.” The legislative fight over reforming Wall Street should be of great interest to the “movement” – such as it is.

But not so as in this Daily Beast item on how Tea Party folks seem to be taking a pass on the whole thing:

Tax Day rallies last week in Washington, D.C., were devoid of signs, slogans, and speeches on the finance bill, and influential right-leaning websites like Red State and Hot Air have all but ignored the issue this week, despite major movement on the Democrats’ legislation. There are some exceptions … but by and large there’s been no high-profile campaign to defeat the bill, and a number of conservative activists concede that the grassroots are inactive.

Dick Armey, president of Tea Party organizer FreedomWorks, acknowledged in an interview that his group has yet to make its mark on the debate.

“We haven’t had a chance to study it,” Armey said.


What an interesting response. The Tea Party crowd didn’t study the health care bill, but the activists opposed it. They didn’t study tax policy, but they’re still whining incessantly about tax increases that haven’t happened. They didn’t study budget policy, but they still think Obama is responsible for huge deficits (he’s not).

But when it comes time to bring some accountability to a financial industry that pushed the global economy to the brink, Armey and his band of confused followers “haven’t had a chance to study it”? Since when does that matter?

Of course Benen is confusing tactics, for this specific battle or that, with overall strategy and ultimate goals. These folks are all tactics. That’s seems to be all they’ve got.

And Steve M. explains what that leads to:

What’s really happening is that the GOP/teabag complex is having a little trouble getting the messaging on this one right. The big kahuna leaders can read a poll, and they know that, even as skepticism about affirmative government increases, Wall Street reform remains popular with the public at large. So they’re a tad reluctant to send a big ol’ tea party bus out there with anti-reform slogans – that might hurt the movement’s indie cred. They’re reluctant to urge the rank-and-file teabaggers’ Pied Pipers on Fox News to go full bore into transmitting anti-reform talking points – at least not until really solid talking points can be developed.

On there’s another way of putting it – they have no real strategy, much less a clear goal. But their logistics are good. They do have all those nice busses.

But you can’t just lie about things. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted people to believe that the financial-regulation reform bill would lead to “more bailouts.” But he was lying. And among Democrats, Senator Mark Warner was actually incensed and Chris Dodd all but called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. Even Republicans senators walked away – Judd Gregg characterized this new argument as a touch over the top and Bob Corker compared McConnell’s pitch to “death panel” nonsense, and the Maine moderates, Snowe and Collins, pretended not to know what McConnell had said. They seemed a bit embarrassed.

So, you should have your tactics align with your overall strategy, which should align with your goals. And when you get all three mixed up and confused, and when even your tactics backfire, someone is going to tell you to pack it in and just forget it. That seems to be what America has told the Republicans in the last two elections. They’d rather let the party that is about governance run things, as the party that is all tactics and nothing but tactics, has nothing to offer beyond them. And it has become obvious ever more clever ways of saying no, while a stunning tactic, leads nowhere. And it seems few want to go there.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Financial Reform, Party of No, Republicans: All Tactics, Senate Confirmation Process, Tactics versus Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s