By Robert Mann
“Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war.” — John Bolton
Perhaps it was latent disgust at U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal. Maybe his vicious attacks against his Republican opponents backfired and split the Louisiana GOP. Perhaps Vitter finally ran up against a potent, well-funded Democratic opponent at exactly the wrong time.
The pundits will offer these and other plausible theories about how Louisiana Democratic Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards defied enormous odds in Saturday’s election and vanquished Vitter, a Republican and the once-prohibitive favorite.
Each theory is probably valid and a piece of the crazy puzzle that resulted in Edwards’ improbable victory. My analysis, however, is simple. It’s about how Vitter and his aides incorrectly analyzed the race more than a year ago.
I believe that Vitter lost to Edwards for the same reason the United States lost the Vietnam War to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong. Like the hapless U.S. generals and their Pentagon bosses in the 1960s, Vitter made several fatal miscalculations: First, he underestimated and misunderstood his opponent. And he fought with once-successful, but now-outdated, strategies from previous campaigns. (Full disclosure: Last spring, I would not have disputed Vitter’s strategy. In fact, I wrote that it would probably work.)
In his book On War, the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed that the “first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”
Most Vietnam War historians agree that the U.S. military ignored Clausewitz’s wisdom. We badly misjudged the Vietcong, underestimated its strength and tenacity and misinterpreted the very nature of the war we were fighting. The U.S. confronted a well-armed insurgency with a conventional strategy of conquering and holding territory. Put simply, our generals employed World War II and Korean War-style tactics to fight an insurgency in South Vietnam that was not about territory but hearts and minds.
We lost because we did not know what kind of war we were fighting.
Clausewitz’s advice on war applies to politics, as well. Vitter did not know what kind of campaign he was running. In fighting his Democratic opponent, he made the same mistakes as the U.S. generals in Vietnam 50 years ago. He did not adapt to new circumstances. Simply put, Vitter fought “the last war.”
Based on earlier, successful campaigns, Vitter assumed he would easily win so long as he faced a Democrat in Saturday’s runoff (Louisiana has an open election system in which Democrats and Republicans are on the same ballot in a non-partisan primary). As he hoped, Vitter got Edwards as his runoff opponent, after he savagely attacked and eliminated his two Republican opponents.
Vitter’s experience told him that from there, victory was a simple matter of raising as much money as possible and using it to run spots attacking Edwards as an Obama clone. As he had done in the past, Vitter planned to make the election a simple referendum on Obama. Based upon his easy victory in 2010, Vitter also likely assumed that his prostitution scandal was no longer an issue.
If that’s what Vitter thought about this governor’s race (and all the available evidence suggests that he did), he badly miscalculated.
Hard as he tried this election, he never made the race about Obama. Instead, to his dismay, the campaign became a referendum on Vitter – his judgment, ethics and character. The prostitution scandal that Vitter assumed was resolved became, instead, a central theme of the race.
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