The tea party needs a General Washington

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Article Highlights

  • @marcthiessen Shutting down the government had zero chance of succeeding, and it played right into Democratic hands

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  • @marcthiessen Tea party patriots need to understand: There is no silver lining in the shutdown cloud

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  • @marcthiessen Make no mistake: The shutdown was the tea party’s Battle of Camden

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  • @marcthiessen The tea party needs a Gen. Washington.

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Amid the smoldering wreckage of the government shutdown and the failed effort to defund Obamacare, it is time for conservatives to figure out why they lost — and how they can win the next time.

Since the tea party takes its inspiration from the American Revolution, it might want look to that period for answers. It can learn a lot from the contrasting strategies of two revolutionary war generals: Horatio Gates and George Washington. One led the patriots into disaster, while the other led them to victory.

Gates commanded American forces at the Battle of Camden, the British victory depicted in Mel Gibson’s classic movie ‘The Patriot.’ Gates thought he had the British cornered but played right into their hands, positioning inexperienced militia fighters opposite the best troops the crown had. When the more capable redcoat forces advanced with bayonets, Gates’s forces (who did not have bayonets) were compelled to flee. The continentals were routed. It is considered to this day one of the most catastrophic defeats in U.S. military history.

By contrast, George Washington knew better than to go muzzle-to-muzzle with superior British forces in an open field. He followed what was known as the “Fabian Strategy” (named for the Roman leader Quintus Fabius Maximus), avoiding large, unwinnable battles in favor of smaller strategic engagements. As historian James Scythes explains it, “unless his army enjoyed a distinct advantage, Washington believed he must avoid direct battle” and “instead resorted to swift raids against detachments of the enemy’s army.” In the Battle of Princeton, for example, Washington knew he could not defeat Cornwallis’s 8,000-man force in direct combat. So he left his campfires burning as a diversionary tactic, snuck around the British camp, and took on the British in a series of smaller rear-guard engagements.

For taking this cautious approach, Washington was accused by some at the time of being a RINO (“Revolutionary in Name Only”). Scythes writes, “Critics of his strategy would grow impatient with Washington’s lack of victories, which would lead to frustration amongst patriots.” They wanted him to fight! But despite his aggressive nature, Washington refused to send his troops on suicide missions. His Fabian Strategy worked because he picked smaller, winnable fights and defeated the British in a war of attrition.

This is precisely the approach today’s patriots should have taken in the fight against Obamacare. Shutting down the government had zero chance of succeeding, and it played right into Democratic hands.

Today, some on the right are rationalizing defeat, claiming they won in a lot of ways. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) boasted: “Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up Obamacare for the whole nation.” No, you didn’t. You distracted the nation from Obamacare’s disastrous rollout, pushing the Obamacare implosion off the front pages and giving the media an excuse to focus on the disarray in the Republican Party instead of the disarray in the Obama administration. You ruined the chance to delay implementation of at least parts of Obamacare. And you alienated independent voters who agree that Obamacare is a disaster but opposed a government shutdown.

Tea party patriots need to understand: There is no silver lining in the shutdown cloud. It was an unmitigated disaster. Remember the tea party’s successful fight to ban earmarks? The continuing resolution passed to reopen the government contains earmarks for things like the Olmstead Locks and Dam in Kentucky and Colorado highway funds. The Obamacare income verification provision was watered down to be meaningless. The final legislation was worse than what Sen. Harry Reid put forward before the shutdown.

Amazingly, even some leaders of the defund debacle are now admitting the fight was unwinnable from the start. Last week, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told Fox News, “Everybody understands that we’ll not be able to repeal this law until 2017. And we have to win the Senate and win the White House.” Now he tell us? Then what on earth was the point of the government shutdown?

If conservatives had instead followed the Fabian approach of Gen. Washington — avoiding a battle they knew could not be won in favor of smaller engagements — they might have succeeded in delaying parts of Obamacare and rallying the American people for its eventual repeal. Instead, they were completely routed.

Those responsible for this disaster ought to be held to account. After leading his forces into an unwinnable fight with a disastrous strategy, Gen. Gates was fired by the Continental Congress. No one questioned his patriotism, but they questioned his competence. His reputation never recovered.

Those who led the tea party into an unwinnable fight with a disastrous strategy should be equally discredited today. Yet many on the right are hailing Sen. Ted Cruz and the rest of the defund caucus as heroes. At least they stood and fought, they say. No, they led us into a trap. Make no mistake: The shutdown was the tea party’s Battle of Camden. Those who botched it are the modern equivalent of Gen. Gates.

The tea party needs a Gen. Washington.

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About the Author


Marc A.
  • A member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, Marc A. Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Thiessen spent more than six years as spokesman and senior policy adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He is a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, and his articles can be found in many major publications. His book on the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program, Courting Disaster (Regnery Press, 2010), is a New York Times bestseller. At AEI, Thiessen writes about U.S. foreign and defense policy issues for The American and the Enterprise Blog. He appears every Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and makes frequent appearances on other TV and talk radio programs.

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