Saturday, June 25, 2011

The High Ground

One of my favorite movies of the last 20 years is 1993's "Gettysburg."

It was a long movie — more than four hours — but I guess it had to be that long if it was going to do justice to what may well be the most important and most decisive event in American history. Many historians believe — and I am inclined to agree — that victory at Gettysburg paved the way for the Union's eventual triumph over the Confederacy.

I have not done a comprehensive study of the Battle of Gettysburg, but I do know, from what I have read, that there were many examples of heroism and sacrifice on both sides in that battle. Most of those who fought in it had no idea what to expect, but, if the story told in the movie was accurate, there was at least one person who thought he knew how things would play out before the battle truly began.

There is a scene, early in the movie, when Union cavalry officer John Buford (played by Sam Elliott) essentially chooses the spot for the confrontation, establishing a defensive perimeter on the tactically critical "high ground" of Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge.

He has spotted the approaching Confederate army and sent a message asking for support, but he worries that those support troops will not arrive in time.

Pessimistically, Buford tells a colleague that he can see how the battle will play out — as if gazing into a crystal ball.

"You know what's going to happen here in the morning?" he asks. "The whole damn reb army is going to be here. They'll move through this town, occupy these hills on the other side and when our people get here, Lee will have the high ground. ...

"Meade will come in slowly, cautiously. New to command. They'll be on his back in Washington. ... So he will set up a ring around these hills. And when Lee's army is nicely entrenched behind fat rocks on the high ground, Meade will finally attack, if he can coordinate the army. ... We will charge valiantly ... and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was.

"I've led a soldier's life, and I've never seen anything as brutally clear as this."

And his vision was very nearly fulfilled — except that both sides were "butchered" and victory ultimately went to the Union, thanks in large part to Buford's foresight.

The charge he foresaw did happen — but Pickett's Charge, as it is known in the history books, was carried out by the South.

If Buford had not held the high ground until other Union forces could arrive, the battle might have been won by the South — and the story of the last century and a half might have been dramatically different.

I don't know if Elliott's monologue was some sort of literary device (perhaps created by Michael Shaara in the historical novel upon which the movie was based) or if Buford really had some sort of premonition (and just couldn't see clearly enough to tell which side would be vanquished), but I know the nagging feeling of a troubling and seemingly inevitable vision of the future.

It is truly a relief, isn't it, when it turns out that such a vision was faulty, but the mind certainly can run wild when it is allowed to do so. Fear has a way of doing that to people.

In more ways than most people probably could imagine at the time, FDR was right when he said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

I guess fear really is what motivates most people to do most things. And fear is undoubtedly behind the polarization of modern American politics — not necessarily racial fear, although that is a component, as is religious anxiety, divisions over gender–related issues, fear of immigrants of all kinds, generation gaps, but fear in general (and, to be fair, fear of some specific things, too).

Everyone fears something. Buford — or, at least, Buford's character — feared losing the high ground, feared defeat. His fears turned out to be unfounded.

He held the high ground, thanks to some creative strategy (and, I guess, a little good fortune, too) — but there was a period when his success was not certain.

In the 21st century, it seems to me that none of America's leaders on either side of the political fence are holding the moral high ground.

I'm sure they would all protest that assertion. They would say they are motivated by and for all kinds of good things. But fear is really what is at the heart of it all.

Fear is why the outsiders (the Republicans) warn of the dire consequences of the Democrats' policies — and why the Democrats warn against the extremism inherent in the outsiders' politics.

Both sides are afraid of losing — for different reasons.

And, to be sure, there are very good reasons why both sides should take the other seriously — and earnestly try to avoid any sort of sense of complacency about 2012. In the past, there has usually been a large group of swing voters, but this time things are different. People have been taking sides, and there is little room for error.

The parties do need to win over those who really haven't decided, but there don't seem to be many of them, once you get past those who say they are undecided but that they are leaning to one side or another. That means that the challenge will be to motivate the bases, the true believers, and make sure they get to the polls.

Mark my words. Next year's election will be about mobilizing the faithful, and that could get rough. Scare tactics are likely to be used to a greater extent than voters have seen. It ain't gonna be pretty.

America will never choose an extremist challenger over an incumbent, Democrats tell each other reassuringly. Really? Perhaps they have forgotten that Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a wild–eyed extremist who couldn't wait to get his itchy trigger finger on the nuclear button when he was nominated to run against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Extremists of both stripes were spectacularly unsuccessful in the years before Reagan came along, but they were usually perceived as threatening in some way. Reagan had an amiable personality that drew people to him, even many who disagreed with him.

Today, Reagan is held up as a model by both sides. Republicans, understandably, remember him as popular and successful, the embodiment of conservative values, and they are nostalgic for those days.

And Democrats, who are just as understandably eager to be free of the burden of a troublesome economy and high unemployment, remember that Reagan rebounded from the recession that plagued his first term to win re–election by a landslide. While they are busy reminding voters that the son of Reagan's vice president was in charge when the economy imploded, Democrats will be seeking to emulate the tactics the Gipper used to overcome economic concerns during his successful re–election campaign.

They seem to have conveniently forgotten what really elected Reagan in the first place — individual answers to his question in his only debate with Carter in 1980. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Not many Americans would answer in the affirmative today.

Until 1980, Republicans were generally considered moderate, but they linked arms with the Tea Party of their day, the "Moral Majority," in what was seen by centrists and liberals as a nationally unacceptable lurch to the right.

Many of the Democrats I knew scoffed in the summer and fall of 1980 — but they weren't scoffing in November when the Republicans won the presidency and the Senate.

Today's Democrats sound just as certain as their forebears did 30 years ago that Americans are too knowledgeable, too sophisticated to be taken in by what they see as the lunatic fringe.

Nevertheless, the insiders are hedging their bets with a little bribery in the form of 60 million barrels of oil from the International Energy Agency.

In the short term, that might be a good move, but it seems likely to be delayed gratification — considerably delayed. The influence on prices at the pump, like the delayed implementation of the health care package, won't be felt immediately and might not be seen until you start making your plans for Labor Day — which is usually long after most Americans have gone on their summer vacations.

Don't get me wrong. Americans who need to get away from home for a little while should do so — for their own good as well as the businesses that cater to tourists — but many, I am sure, have put such thoughts on the shelf in the face of $4/gallon gas. A break at the pump might encourage more to get away to the beach, to amusement parks, to ball games.

I'm sure that is the kind of thing that Obama and other Democratic politicians would like to see. But the timing is way off. Here we are, nearly halfway through summer, and this policy, which I have heard will not be felt at the pump until August, is only now being enacted.

This isn't something that happened overnight. Gas prices have been rising steadily for months. And, as Jordy Yager writes in The Hill, it is a plan that has been in the works for nearly two months.

But a lot of time was wasted back in February and March and April, when Ben Bernanke was insisting the price increases would be temporary. (Obama's confidence in Bernanke may have been misplaced. He conceded this week that he does not know why growth has been so sparse — which doesn't seem like the kind of thing the Federal Reserve chairman should be saying — even if it is true.)

I'm no economist, but even I know that if you want consumers to get a summer boost from your economic policies, you can't wait this long. You have to prime the pump long before that.

Well, prices will drop a bit as a result, but who knows how long the good feelings will last? Will prices remain artificially suppressed until you go over the meadow and through the woods to grandma's house at Thanksgiving or Christmas?

If this isn't politically motivated — like those "rebates" the Bush administration foolishly gave to every American in the months just before September 11 — what is it?

Supposedly, this is intended to make up for the disruption of supplies from Libya — but prices were already going down, not as rapidly as folks would like but they have been dropping.

The administration protests that this is not political — but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...

The president does seem to be recognizing, perhaps belatedly, the symbolic value of gestures — and that is what this appears to be. After all, 60 million barrels of oil sounds like a lot — and it is — but, realistically, it wouldn't keep the engines in this country running for a week.

It is, however, something he can mention during the campaign, a weapon in his arsenal. But he should be careful about using it. It could backfire.

That doesn't change the fact that this president, who has spoken so eloquently in the past of changing our energy priorities and breaking free of our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources, is treating a symptom, not the disease, with this policy.

Releasing all those barrels of oil will do nothing to promote Obama's energy objectives — but it will put more money in people's pockets. They might not be able to spend it on a family trip to Disney World, but they might feel inclined to contribute it to his re–election campaign. And it might improve his approval ratings for awhile.

But it isn't likely to change the fact that most people believe the country has veered off on the wrong track — and polls consistently show that, by at least a 2–to–1 ratio, more people think the country is going in the wrong direction than the right one.

As for the Republicans, well, their presidential field is more conservative than it was four years ago — and, normally, I would see that as a negative — but prevailing conditions at the time of an election usually have a lot to do with the outcome and, if things seem bleak to voters in November 2012, they are likely to vote for someone new.

That's the way things are done in America. Incumbents usually get the credit for good economies or the blame for bad ones.

James Carville writes that, no matter how tempting it clearly is for Democrats, blaming the Bush administration for the poor economy is not wise. And he is right. It was OK in the early days of the Obama presidency, but after 2½ years, like it or not, this economy belongs to this president.

A couple of years from now, in early July 2013, America will mark the sesquicentennial of that three–day battle in Gettysburg. Whoever is president at that time will undoubtedly come to Pennsylvania for whatever will be done to mark the anniversary.

We should have a better idea at that time if he or she held the high ground in 2012 — and whether he/she continued to do so after Inaugural Day.

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