The Secret of Defeat

Christopher Flannery

June 16, 2014

As Aristotle says, politics is the realm of “things that could be otherwise.” The presidential election of 1992 was an Aristotelian election with bells on. It was Bush’s to win or lose , and he arranged the latter with what at times seemed a perverse genius of his own.

Winston Churchill, in a biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, speculated about what was “the secret of victory” in Marlborough’s many great military campaigns. He concluded that the secret lay in Marlborough’s “military genius,” and that it was a secret ultimately impenetrable, locked in “the eye and brain and soul of a single man.” After a battle, “nothing is more easy than to assign reasons for success or failure” by describing the manoeuvers of the armies. That is why cogent sounding critics are so common. But

Circumstance alone decides whether a correct conventional manoeuvre is right or wrong. The circumstances include all the factors which are at work at the time; the numbers and quality of the troops and their morale, their weapons, their confidence in their leaders, the character of the country, the condition of the roads, time and the weather: and behind these the politics of their states, the special interests which each army has to guard, together with many other complications. And it is the true comprehension at any given moment of the dynamic sum of all these constantly shifting forces that constitutes military genius.

That is why great generals are so rare.

“Nothing but genius,” Churchill writes, “can answer the riddles of war.”

In default of genius nations have to make war as best they can, and since that quality is much rarer than the largest and purest diamonds, most wars are mainly tales of muddle. But when from time to time it flashes upon the scene, order and design with a sense almost of infallibility draw out from hazard and confusion.

In the case of the campaign of 1992, even after the battle it still looks like a muddle to this critic. Order and design never emerged; hazard and confusion reigned with aimless infallibility.

But if critics must assign reasons even for a muddle, it may be hazarded that the single greatest determinant of the 1992 election was the end of the Cold War. If international communism appeared as threatening in 1992 as it had seemed even in 1988, George Bush, ceteris paribus, would still be president in 1996. Imminent danger sharpens the instincts and places otherwise divisive problems in perspective. A sudden sense of security after years of keeping the powder more or less dry tends to make people a little giddy and, well, irresponsible. And even if ceteris had not been paribus, it is moral certainty, without the Soviet collapse, that Bill Clinton would not have been elected. A moral certainty because it verges on the sin of mean-spiritedness to suggest that the American people would have elected someone with Mr. Clinton’s dubious predilections in a world still stalked be the “Evil Empire.”

This is by no means to say that the apparent end of the communist threat predetermined the outcome of the elections. As Aristotle says, politics is a realm of “things that could be otherwise.” The presidential election of 1992 was an Aristotelian election with bells on. It was Bush’s to win or lose, and he arranged the latter with what at times seemed a perverse genius of his own. Books are being written counting the ways in which this was a bad campaign. I confine myself to unimpeachable anecdotal evidence of the need for a good campaign.

I was walking precincts for a close friend who was a staunch Reaganite candidate for Congress in the “Inland Empire” of southern California. This Congressional district is about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. You know you are entering the district by the smell of cows— by the vista that opens up, of brushfire-dry rolling hills with outcroppings of dust-brown boulders, and by the greater abundance and clarity of country-western stations on the AM dials of the off road vehicles. This was Reagan country.

Walking precincts is thirsty work. But we had a great candidate, and a lot of dedicated people were out in the neighborhoods going door to door. Following instructions, I spoke only to “high propensity” Republican voters, putting two checks next to their names on my list if they were “definites” for our candidate, one check if they were “probables”. These checks would prompt the phone crews and the Get-out-the-vote team when the time came. The relevant scientific observation to which I have alluded is of a citizen I found under the hood of his pick-up behind a chain link fence prowled by two Doberman pinchers. The bumper-sticker on the pick-up was promising: It read, “Promote Gun Control: Use Both Hands.” This was a two checker.

Respect for property rights kept me from opening the gate. The hungry sounds of the Dobermans called me to the man’s attention. He put down a wrench and came my way in worn Levis, a sweatshirt, and an old L.A. Dodgers cap. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with the weathered face of a man who works outdoors, the slightly bowed legs and a carriage of a former high school shortstop who had had a few beers in his day. I addressed him by the name on my list, introduced myself, and gave him the pitch. “Are you following the Congressional race in your district, etc,.”

He raised a quiet grease-stained hand just as I was hitting stride. “Son,” he said (I am in my mid-forties and look it, but the appellation came naturally to him and had no flavor of condescension). “Son, save your breath. When George Bush went back on his word about taxes, I told my wife I was through with voting. I’ve been voting Republican for thirty years and never missed an election. But these politicians are all the same. They say what you want to hear and do what’s convenient. She says I’m wrong, and she’s probably right, but I just can’t stomach it anymore.”

A sense of duty swelled my chest. I had to bring this lost sheep back into the fold. I had to save him from political nihilism. I had to get two checks next to his name. I needed to provide him with an argument for doing the right thing. But I couldn’t remember one. My mind was blank until it suddenly came back to me: the obvious argument, the only argument. The irresistible logic took shape in my mind: Sure, Bush had abandoned the faithful. But look at the alternative. Do you want the Marines holding hands?

For me, to think is to act. I took a half step forward with a kind of soul saving enthusiasm. “Sir…” And the Dobermans hit the gate like starving hounds from hell. I dropped my lists and my stack of leaflets, which began to flutter down the street in the evening breeze.

“Yes, son?”

I discovered myself standing near the curb, about eight feet back from my previous abode. “Oh,” I said, trying to get the squeak out of my voice, “I hope your wife will vote.”

He gave me a slow, wry smile as he started back to the pick-up. “She’s a Democrat.”

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