A crucial fact about insurgencies, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted, is that the guerrillas win if they don’t lose and the regular army loses if it doesn’t win. That truth should not be lost in the aftermath of the House of Representatives’ passage last week of a budget compromise.
The bill would avoid many of the mindless spending cuts required by the crude mechanism of sequestration and, for two years, should ensure against another government shutdown. It also reduces the deficit. It likely will pass the Senate this week.
By finally staring down far-right insurgents within their party, Republican House leaders did not end the rebellion. But even incremental progress is progress, and when the ceiling doesn’t immediately collapse on the leaders of this modest effort, they should be more willing to join further bipartisan efforts to solve real problems rather than merely massage electoral ones.
Not that electoral considerations were absent from the leaders’ calculations. No party’s leadership could be so recklessly selfless in today’s superheated atmosphere. But their triangulations led them to a right place for the country: a respite from contrived fiscal crises that chilled the heart of political life.
We should all hope for more such bipartisan steps – and more incremental wins for the “regular army” – between now and the 2014 congressional elections when responsibility for the nation’s future again falls squarely, if briefly, on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who vote.
That election will gauge whether the insurgents and the money-laden ideology enforcers behind them – Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and others – will be able to continue locking the country into an unhealthy philosophy and political style.
Avoiding that will require some rethinking by those Americans who describe themselves as “tea party” proponents. In a nationwide Bloomberg poll, 67 percent of those respondents said they want congressional candidates who will remain true to principles whatever the cost to themselves and others. Only one-third of self-described tea party respondents would prefer candidates who are committed to getting things done even if it means legislative compromise.
Insurgents who reject any compromise or reasonable accommodation on every issue can wield influence so long as they do not wholly lose, as Kissinger implied. They need not wholly win, only survive to fight another day.
Until this point in our nation’s history, radical political insurgencies have eventually lost, rejected at the ballot box or rendered irrelevant by changing circumstances: Think McCarthy-style anti-communism in the 1950s and left-wing extremism in the 1970s, for two.
But today’s radical political movement is not composed of a rogue, demented politician and his followers or a group of well-intentioned if misguided rebels. It’s driven and financed by very smart (not wise, merely smart) and very wealthy people who are determined to impose their narrow economic vision and who are cynical about democracy. They have invested millions trying to convince Americans to act against their own self-interest and the nation’s best interest and to feel patriotic about it.
Both interests can be met only by politics driven not by a narrow ideology but by a working appreciation of how our democracy originated and evolved. If the regular army of moderate Americans doesn’t win, we all lose.