“I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in the early autumn of 1862, “that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game.” The rail-splitter’s despair is a familiar one but, seen through the prism of the tragically acquiescent winter of 2016, that it birthed in him an indefatigable resolve is sadly alien. It’s a resolve the inheritors of Lincoln’s party seem not to share. The threat they face is total, the pathway to neutralize it almost universally acknowledged, but the will to abandon failed tactics remains maddeningly absent.
In that first full year of Civil War, every benefit enjoyed by the North seemed to have been squandered or effectively countered. For all the Union’s advantages in men and materiel, for all its industrial might and capacity for dynamism, it was losing the war. The architect of Lincoln’s anguish was an ornery general who made a habit of missing opportunities. George McClellan’s uncompromisingly high opinion of himself was matched only by his low regard for everyone else. Despite his unflappable faith in his own abilities, McClellan had a unique capacity to convince himself that his adversaries were ten feet tall. While he routinely underestimated the enemy’s commanders, he was paralyzed by the perception that his adversaries were cumulatively far stronger than they were. He believed his dominant posture was illusory, refused to press advantages, and stubbornly stuck to an objectively botched tactical approach.
After the disaster on the peninsula, Lincoln was faced with a stark choice. Plan A had failed, and the perception that the Union would lose the war was tempting foreign powers to tip the balance. In recognition of the existential nature of the threat and the challenge before him, the president and the Republican-dominated Congress abandoned tactics and embraced strategy. The abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and other legislative attacks on that institution reversed Dred Scott and led the way to Emancipation, which was undertaken only after the reluctant McClellan was jettisoned and a few showpiece victories won. This was indeed a masterstroke, but it was by no means a risk-free proposition. In gambling with the prospect of expanded rebellion by transforming a war for Union into something else, Lincoln cast the Confederacy as defenders of the vile practice of human bondage and ensured permanent European neutrality.
At the risk of overindulging a dramatic metaphor, the Republican Party’s own great civil struggle has been marred by a mulish devotion to failed tactics. The GOP’s McClellans have all incubated the rise of the agent of their destruction because, for a time, he was a useful evil. Jeb Bush-aligned Right to Rise PAC steadfastly ignored Trump for most of 2015 until their candidate began signaling that he felt his last chance for salvation lay in going after the frontrunner. Ted Cruz’s allies in conservative media relentlessly built up the wealthy real estate mogul under the mistaken impression that campaign would implode before the first votes were cast, redounding to Cruz’s benefit. For months, the Texas senator himself heaped obsequious praise upon the reality television star even as Trump was excoriating him in the most uncharitable of terms. It’s a course Cruz has only recently reversed out of necessity. Senator Marco Rubio has been one of the few Republican candidates to consistently receive warm praise from the reality television star, but only because of the Florida senator’s dogged refusal to sharply criticize Trump by name in the proper understanding that he would not earn even one Trump vote as a result. For the most part, only those candidates with nothing to lose took the fight to Trump.
Damn the tactics. Their accumulated effect has been to bring the Republican Party to the brink of destruction. It’s time for something new.
On Thursday night, the remaining Republican candidates will gather on the debate stage for the last time before “Super Tuesday.” Trump’s support is generally firm, baked in, and unassailable. In fact, it is Cruz’s support that seems weak and Rubio who continues to sport the largest target on his back. There seems no immediate tactical benefit to attacking Trump for most of the candidates, but there is a strategic one if the party’s thinking were to evolve in recognition of the nature of the threat.
Every candidate save Trump is a scion of the Regan Revolution, and they should look upon their rival at the top of the polls as leader of a movement to restore the status quo ante. Every one of those candidates knows that the institution to which they have devoted their lives not out of careerism but of genuine love of country and ideological solidarity would be shattered by a Trump victory – perhaps permanently. Some of the party’s ostensibly responsible figures have lent credence to the notion that Trump the nominee can be controlled. The ossified talker class will guilt recalcitrant conservatives into voting against their interests if only to preserve the integrity of a party they have for years insisted was a rotten edifice. Trump will be ruined in a general election, and the party will be decimated, but many a self-interested actor hopes they’ll rebuild the GOP around themselves amid the ashes. That’s nonsense. There will be no party to rebuild.
No peace can be made with a figure as unstable as Trump. There is no future that can be salvaged if a man who so flagrantly espouses political violence against his enemies and who counts as allies the bigoted and the bloodthirsty ascends to the top of a major political party.
The tactics aren’t working. The strategy must shift, and every candidate regardless of their presumed benefit must train their fire on the party’s frontrunner relentlessly, unremittingly, and with the understanding that all is lost should they fail. What would undo Trump is no great secret; the unification of the party behind one standard-bearer. But disunity of purpose, stubborn ambition, and self-delusion prevents this felicitous outcome from materializing. If the GOP field is to remain so divided, then its members must recognize that they will be known as the generation that lost the party.
The presumption that no line of attack can cleave from Trump a fraction of his devoted supporters presumes that every, or even most, attacks have been deployed against him. The great myth of this election cycle is that Donald Trump has weathered every assault. In fact, he has been treated as an anomaly to be ignored or a kitten to be gently stroked by allies and adversaries alike. This approach has failed. Bury it. It is time to run the campaign that Democrats would surely mobilize against the boorish lout who has ruined the vulnerable, flouted decency, disgraced American tradition, and has no abiding respect for the Constitution he would be tasked with upholding. Trump is not ten feet tall.
“I can’t spare this man,” Lincoln said of General Grant when, surrounded by failure in 1862, he had but one reliable general who delivered victories albeit at great cost. “He fights.” This was a fighter who would eventually win Lincoln the war, albeit at great cost. The present struggle, too, will make casualties of careers, but now is the time for sacrifice. Republicans have a common enemy. They must fight.