When Barack Obama became president, he said he was open to negotiating with enemies. He would meet Iran’s leaders with an open hand if they would unclench their fists.
“Seize the high ground” has long been a military maxim. It probably became common wisdom before hominins became human. The enemy has to climb a hill and you can rain down rocks, hot oil, arrows, whatever. In a world of 24/7 news, the weapons are subtler. The high ground is where you and your policies look good, and the other guy has to work to change that.
It may seem counterintuitive that being open to negotiation is the high ground. It allows you to set out your positions in a reasonable, non-defensive way, further strengthening them. The other guy has to prove that his positions are better. If he won’t negotiate, he looks like a jerk. And eventually his position erodes.
The Iranian leadership unclenched their fists – a little – and we have the nuclear agreement. The Republicans still haven’t unclenched theirs, and now they have Donald Trump.
Many factors have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump: Fox News, economic and demographic issues, social media. But the central malaise of the Republican Party and its inability to deal with him are a result of Obama’s seizing the high ground and, most importantly, the Republican response to him.
The Republicans had two choices: participate in governing the nation by putting their ideas forth and working through the legislative process to get them enacted, or resisting Obama’s initiatives. By October 2010, just before the midterm elections that would bring a Republican majority to the Senate, Mitch McConnell formulated their response: to deny Obama a second term. He failed.
In the process, he managed to situate the Republican Party as the party of NO and ended its ability to develop and present its own ideas. That’s what a purely defensive strategy will get you, particularly when there is no learning from failure.
Opportunities multiply as they are seized – Sun Tzu
When you hold the high ground, you can push back and make some gains. Many Republican assaults, like the dozens of votes against Obamacare, had no substantive effect. After a while, they began to seem absurd even to supporters. So the Republicans held less and less ground in the war of ideas.
They retreated to racial dogwhistles and tolerance of antiscience. They retreated from Tea Party attacks on their right flank, complicating their campaign against Obama’s high ground. Donald Trump saw their weakness and attacked from airy celebrity.
Obama is already shooting down from the high ground in the beginnings of his nomination of a Supreme Court justice. The strategy I’ve outlined can be seen in this article. Hillary Clinton hopes to hold that high ground. While the Republican debaters wrestle in the mud, she’s taking a different approach.
Even with the best of strategies, things can go wrong. The Republicans have chosen the worst of strategies.
Graphic: Americans storming the British redoubt at the Battle of Yorktown. And yes, the Americans won, with the help of the French.