Before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, some of his aides suggested that the Confederate army retreat and regroup in the countryside as a band of guerillas. While the South had lost the war by any conventional definition, it still had the ability to inflict years of violence and disruption upon the victorious North. All Gen. Lee had to do was give the word, and the rebels would take to the hills to fight on. In what may have been Gen. Lee's greatest moment of leadership, he said he would have no part in a guerilla army. According to the memoirs of Porter Alexander, a member of Lee's senior staff, Lee countered suggestions to fight on by saying, "We must consider its (continued fighting) effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. (This action) would bring on a state of affairs that it would take the country years to recover from." Alexander went away convinced, writing later, "He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I felt ashamed for having made it."
Some Republicans today remind me a bit of yesterday's Confederates. They lost the election, but they cannot accept defeat. Instead, talk radio, television conservatives and tea party members of Congress are running a guerilla war against President Obama and more reasonable members of their own party. Sarah Palin calls any Republican compromisers "wusses"; a Heritage Foundation blog calls House Speaker John Boehner's offer on the fiscal cliff "pre-emptive capitulation," and Sen. Jim DeMint calls it "Speaker Boehner's $800 million tax hike."
These guerillas fail to realize that the country is, as Lee put it, "demoralized" by political war. We have been fighting, not just for four years, but for decades, over the most effective and fair way to curb the debt and insure economic growth. The Republican anti-tax, pro-growth theory has been disproved by more than a decade of experimentation. The 2012 election repudiated the Republican Party’s trickle-down position once again. The party cannot win this war, but it can terrorize our politics and block prospects for fiscal peace.
What would Gen. Lee do in the fight over the fiscal cliff if he were leading the Republicans? He might better understand what just happened on the political battlefield, and the long-term damaging consequences to both Republicans and the country of taking to the hills. But he would also want to know the terms of surrender. How punitive would they be? At Appomattox, the wisdom of Lee was reciprocated by the wisdom of Grant and President Lincoln. The terms let the soldiers of the Confederacy surrender with their dignity, their horses and new rations. My sense is that President Obama would be similarly generous, but not until the guerillas lay down their guns.