A New Lost Cause?

The polls are not looking good for John McCain. It seems Obama may be able to win states like Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina, all of which voted Republican four years ago. To try to offset some of these losses, McCain has adopted a quixotic seeming strategy by doubling down on Pennsylvania. If he could turn the state from blue to red, it would gain him 21 electoral votes. However, polling has him losing by double digits and there are now over a million more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans. Nonetheless, McCain is pumping money into the state and spending a lot of time campaigning there.

It reminds me of the last time that the hope of the south rested on an invasion of Pennsylvania. It was 1863 and General Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia* on its second invasion of the North. Lee did not want a battle until he had concentrated all his forces but was drawn into one when his troops bumped into a Union cavalry division while reportedly in search of shoes. This began a three day slugging match on terrain that was not of Lee’s choosing and before he was ready to attack. Even so, on the first day and the second day he might have pulled it out if things had gone just a little differently. On the third day the smart play was to disengage and try to maneuver the Union army out of its strong defensive positions. Confounding the expectations of enemy generals and fighting a war of movement had been keys to Lee’s success to date. That day though, his blood was up. Against the advice of General Longstreet, Lee did exactly what Union General Meade expected: launch a frontal assault up the middle. It has gone down in history as Pickett’s Charge**. 12,500 Confederates attacked the entrenched Union troops. It was a valiant but doomed charge and men in the thousands were cut down by brutal cannister shot from Union artillery and withering musket fire. The units that made the charge suffered over 50% casualties. After the attack Lee is said to have ordered Pickett to prepare his division for defense. Pickett is reputed to have replied, “General Lee, I have no division.” Pickett’s Charge is often referred to as the high water mark of the Confederacy. Lee retreated back to the South and continued to fight, but after Gettysburg there was little chance of a Confederate victory.

Lee, of course, was in a much better position in 1863 than John McCain is today. Lee spent several years running circles around his opponents and honing the Army of Nothern Virginia into a potent fighting force. He had the initiative, he had a strong right hand in the form of General Longstreet, and he had the ability to inspire his troops. McCain’s move in Pennsylvania is but the latest in a string of desperate ploys. He has only been able to react to Obama’s more agile campaign, he is being dragged down by his manifestly incompetent running mate Sarah Palin, and his poor leadership and erratic behavior have caused many former comrades in arms to abandon him.

Next week we’ll see who is victorious on the battlefields of Pennsylvania and the nation at large. There is one thing John McCain ought to keep in mind as the days tick down to November 4 though. Robert E. Lee lost the war but won a reputation for honor and decency that has only grown since his death. John McCain may somehow pull out a victory, but he’s already squandered his honor in the war of politics. When the history books are written, John McCain’s story will not be that of the honorable man who tried put his country first, but the politician who was willing to stoop to any low to win.

* Amusingly enough, according to Republicans like McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer, Northern Virginia is no longer considered part of “real Virginia.”

** Though it’s more accurate to call it the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault (Pickett being but one of three division commanders in the attack).

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