Note: this item by James Vega was first published on February 17, 2009
One major problem Democrats are having in their internal debate regarding Obama’s support for “bipartisanship” as a political strategy results from fact that different political commentators use the word in several distinct senses and at several different levels of analysis. In ordinary Democratic political discourse there is no agreed-upon way to distinguish them.
There is a basic concept from military strategy that may prove helpful in this regard. In military thinking, the term “strategy” itself is usually broken down into three levels – the small scale level of individual battles (often called tactics), the medium-scale level of military campaigns (often called the “operational” level), and the large-scale level (sometimes called strategy proper or “grand strategy”).
This schema is, on the surface, simple. It becomes more complex, however, because the “small-medium-large” distinction repeats itself like a fractal pattern in geometry over and over at many different levels of the military hierarchy, creating a number of overlapping levels of “small-scale”, “medium-scale” and “large-scale” strategies.
This is easier to see in a specific example.
During World War II, from the point of view of the U.S. commander in Bastogne in December, 1944, the holding actions conducted at the junctions on the three main roads leading into the city were small scale battles, the defense of the city proper was the mid-level strategic challenge and the overall struggle in the geographic area around the city (which including managing the airlift of supplies through the blockade, the German outflanking of the city and continuation of their offensive to the West and the eventual relief of the city from the South by Patton’s Third Army) was the large-scale strategic perspective.
On the other hand, from the point of view of General Eisenhower and the allied command, all of Bastogne was a single battle, the entire German winter counter-offensive (The “Battle of the Bulge”) was a mid-level struggle and the entire Western front (including its resupply via the North Atlantic sea routes and the strategic bombing of Germany) represented the large-scale strategic perspective.
It is easier to disentangle these distinct layers of strategy in a military environment because the rigidly hierarchical organization (“squad-platoon-company” etc.) makes the overlapping frameworks more explicit than does politics. But the basic “small-medium-large” way of analyzing strategy can still be of use in political strategy. In the case of the current argument over “bipartisanship” for example, it makes it quickly apparent that different commentators are talking about quite different levels of strategy when they announce that “bipartisanship” has “failed.”
Ezra Klein argues that Obama should have begun with a larger figure for the stimulus package as an initial bargaining position rather than seek “bipartisanship”
John Judis argues that mass membership progressive organizations like unions and MoveOn should constitute themselves as a “loyal opposition” in order to leverage legislation in a more progressive direction rather than passively supporting Obama’s “bipartisanship”.
David Broder and other high priests of the commentariat describe Obama’s “bipartisanship” as an admirable but naïve objective, floundering on a “deeply-rooted beltway culture” of Washington.
Set side by side, it is easy to recognize that these commentators are referring to essentially different things. More difficult, however, is to figure out how to clarify the ambiguity.
As a very preliminary first step, consider the following typology:
Tactical bipartisanship – seeking the support of individual Republican congressmen and women for a particular bill or measure.
Operational bipartisanship – Trying to convince a significant group of Republicans to constructively participate in the shaping of a broad legislative agenda, even if such an agenda is inevitably Democratic-dominated
Strategic bipartisanship – attempting to overcome the Republican-fostered partisan division of the electorate during last three decades. Appealing directly to Republican voters as distinct from Republican congressmen. This is the level that Ed Kilgore refers to as “grassroots bipartisanship”.
This is a very preliminary, “seat of the pants” shot at a framework. But it suggests a way of beginning to approach this particular problem – one that also starts to tackle the broader problem of distinguishing the different level of Democratic strategy.
(Note: For clarity, I have oversimplified the actual categorization framework that is used in military strategy. Democrats who want to get a deeper sense of this subject should read the two most influential statements of “Strategy” in the postwar period – Basil Liddell-Hart’s post-war edition of “The Strategy of the Indirect Approach” and Edwin Luttwack’s Strategy – the Logic of War and Peace.)