Modern political warfare is a battlefield in which small battles give way to the larger conflict for national rule and succession. In feudal times such conflicts might be settled with a coalition of lords aligned one way or another. In the modern colonial territories between the Atlantic and the Pacific, populated by a fragmented collection of states, races, religions and classes, the coalitions are assembled out of those groups.
This strategy works because of the love/hate relationship that people have with government, fearing its power but wanting it to do something, even if that something is nothing. No one wants to be caught in a situation where the power is on the other side. Some of this is natural distrust and some of it has a basis.
States and even the most benevolent organizations compete for funds. Commerce is full of lobbies that will rewrite the system to bankrupt the competition and has done it over and over again. Some of it is cultivated distrust, much of it by the rainbow coalition which has done an excellent job of programming voters to believe that the alternative will be a system of white males hostile to them.
Half of winning a battle is choosing the terrain. The actual conflict, the clash of swords and spears is often secondary to positioning. Set up in the right place and you can win, even when you lose. Set up in the wrong place and all you have to look forward to is a victory so costly that it makes the war hopeless. When your battle is all about coalitions, then your positioning is all about selling your policies as being beneficial to as many coalition members as possible and their policies as being hostile to as many coalition members as possible.
A mandate that forces religious institutions to provide products and services that is in conflict with their faith has to be fought on the grounds of religious freedom. The mandaters equally wanted to move the battlefield from religious freedom to women's rights. Both sides wanted to choose a terrain that would mobilize their own coalitions. To do that both sides had to emphasize their angle on the mandate and make that angle preeminent in people's minds.
The vocal protests by Catholic groups put the religious freedom angle ahead. Then came Fluke and too many Republicans took the bait and the debate shifted from religious freedom to the promiscuity of graduate students and just like that defeat had been snatched out of the jaws of victory. The narrative had shifted from the right of religious institutions not to be compelled to violate their beliefs, to a debate over sexual mores, which was exactly where the left wanted it to be.
The narrative defines the story you are telling. The story that the Republicans had been telling was that the mandate was a threat to our freedom. The story that the Democrats began telling was that the lack of a mandate was dangerous to women's rights. Pointing out that Fluke was lying about the expense of contraception demonstrated that a mandate was unnecessary. But it was also a distraction from the core point because the debate had shifted from religious freedom to whether subsidized contraception was needed.
In the Manchurian Candidate, Senator Iselin famously complains about giving varying figures to which his wife explains that the varying figures shift the debate from whether a thing is true to the degree to which it is true. Debating to what extent contraception is needed undermines the core issue that religious organizations cannot be compelled to violate their faith to provide something a thing, regardless of whether it is needed or not and whether it is expensive or not.
A debate on the availability of contraception, no matter how well handled, only served the narrative of one side. No matter how well the debate was conducted, it meant that the right was now fighting on the battlefield that had been chosen by the left. All it took was a few sexual insults lobbed Fluke's way for the diversion to be complete. The right was now either retreating from sexism charges or engaging in it. The social issue was framed in exactly the terms that fit the left's narrative.
Limbaugh's apology was nearly as bad of an idea as his original statement. The only time you advance into an enemy's choice of terrain is when you are confident of being able to fight there and win. You do not give up the high ground just to take a few potshots at the enemy. After a temporary satisfaction, you end up losing the battlefield and being drawn into a battle that you never meant to fight. When that happens, you circle around and take back the high ground, you do not surrender because then there is nothing left to fight for.
The left's coalitions depend on portraying the other side as engaging in a war on their protected groups. Without that war, their whole feudal lordships suddenly become unnecessary. That means it is in their vital interest to define each policy conflict as a Republican war on a protected class. While it's advantageous at times to confront them on this when their position is weakest and ridicule it, it wasn't worth surrendering the coalition of religious freedom to take a few potshots at the absurdity of Fluke's testimony. Fluke, like every organizer from a protected class, is there to represent an entire group. Attacking her quickly becomes a diversion into the left's narrative of a war on women.
Religious institutions imposed the terms of the battle by rebelling against the mandate. That forced Obama and his cronies to try and dismiss the battle, refusing to fight on that terrain. But Republicans and even some Democrats insisted on rallying on the field anyway, calling for a battle. So Team Obama diverted the battle to the terrain of their choice. They set new terms of battle, an effort which initially failed, until Limbaugh gave them the talking point they needed.
To win in 2012, the left needs to mobilize its coalition. To do that it doesn't necessarily need to win battles, it needs to successfully position them on its choice of terrain. It needs to be seen as the feudal lords protecting the rainbow peasantry from the hordes of the right. The purpose of the whole thing is to convince the peasants to support King Hussein, despite the disastrous economy and the general malaise, the abuses of power and all the other problems with his rule.
Both sides exploit a sense of vulnerability in the population during troubled times. The left excels at cross-sectioning the population into specific groups, dividing them up, and making them feel vulnerable as a class, as a group, as a gender, as a race. Organizers emphasize that victimization and offer them a sense of empowerment through the coalition. Or as Obama puts it, "Better Together."
The path to victory lies in either gathering the largest coalition or in fragmenting the coalition of the other side. The left is not very good at the former, its own habits and tactics limit its scope, but it is quite good at the second. It gains power through disruption, through terror and intimidation, it plays on fears, pits groups against each other and then steps in as the mediator.
It would not be nearly as effective at this if it did not also control the culture's narrative through the media, popular culture and academia, giving it control of highbrow and lowbrow narratives at the same time. This makes it more difficult to counter its narrative or to choose the field of battle and makes it that much more dangerous to abandon a strategic position for a target of opportunity.
While occasional skirmishes can be fun, the larger goal has to be to bring together a coalition over the freedom narrative. That is the narrative that their common freedom is endangered by the left's hunger for power and that the mandate is an example of how that power is abused to endanger the basic rights of everyone. And this is encompassed by the larger narrative that we are failing as a nation and as a society because the left has been able to turn its agenda into law, stifling freedom and innovation, destroying the economy and wiping out our future.
That narrative can be pushed forward with lowbrow and highbrow methods, so long as they are strategically calculated to advance the narrative. It's when they advance the narrative of the other side that they become destructive. Insurgency is good, falling into a trap isn't. The good thing about it is that the traps are predictable. We know how the left sees the right, we know how they see the world, and we know their narrative-- that tells what kind of traps that they will set of us.
The left wants everyone to see the opposition the way that they see them. What they seek is the absolute triumph of their narrative. The traps they set will be calculated to reinforce that narrative. And at times there it is strategically apt to ride into an ambush, most of the time it's foolish to fight the left in their position of strength. It is much more effective to starve their narrative, to deprive it of oxygen so that it becomes either boring or shrill. Or to directly take their narrative apart.
Most of all what we need them to do is advance into our narrative, so that we can choose the field of battle. If we don't do that, then we will go on losing, no matter how many victories we think we have racked up.
Coalitions are built on interests, not on ideology. For all the talk about a right and a left, people vote in what they think their interests are. It is possible to convince millions of people to vote not in their own interests. A sizable percentage of the Democratic vote consists of people who are voting on what their interests might have been in the 1930's or the 1950's. The Jewish Democratic vote is certainly not interest based, because most American Jews, like their Christian liberal counterparts are no longer capable of rationally calculating group interests, instead responding to dogma and emotion.
However even phantom interests are interests. People vote because they believe that their way of life will be better served under one party or another. The left is effective at tapping into real or phantom interests. The right isn't. Without the Tea Party movement, the right would be represented in this election by a gang of bumbling establishment Republicans promising them a kinder and gentler version of Hope and Change routed through the Chamber of Commerce. It still mostly is.
The Republican Party has been absolutely terrible at advancing a narrative, instead it has managed to stumble into becoming a successful opposition movement to Obama's proposals, mostly centering around ObamaCare. And it still manages to blow what advantages it has, repeatedly. It has a ready made narrative handed to it by a populist movement and a major international religious organization and it still has trouble hanging on to it.
When selling a product, the first thing to remember is that your product has to fit a customer's needs. That means learning about the product and learning about the customer, but the purpose is to explain to the customer why they need the product. The Republican Party has a great product that it does not understand how to sell and customers who get sales pitches for products that they don't particularly want. The Democratic Party has a terrible product, but a sales staff that can move anything.
In battles and salesmanship, and just about any activity, it is vitally important to keep your goal in mind. If you don't remember why you are doing this, you will forget what you are doing and you will fail.
Wars are chaotic, it's easy to get distracted, to get shellshocked or to pursue targets of opportunity while the larger battle goes to hell. That happens often enough in actual battles, and it's how an army disintegrates into scattered groups, being surrounded and overwhelmed by a more disciplined force.
Giving up the narrative means giving up the battle and eventually the war. The left's strength is terminology shifting. That is its ball. When it manages to make its terminology shift go mainstream, then it sinks a ball into the basket and scores a point. It has been scoring a lot of those points since the 1930's. We haven't. That is why we may win elections, but we don't really change things.
When Catholic institutions protested the mandate, we had the ball. When we turned our attention to Fluke, we lost the ball. It's that simple. Message discipline means never giving up the ball. Never. Besides all the other obvious reasons, the basket for us is set at a 100 feet, the basket for the left is set at about 2 feet. Once they get the ball, making the basket is not very hard for them. It's hard for us. And that makes losing the ball all the more unforgivable.