D.G. MARTIN COLUMN: Can candidates learn from Gettysburg?

Published 6:59 pm Sunday, June 9, 2019

Are there lessons from the Civil War battles at Gettysburg for the Democrats and their candidates as they prepare for the 2020 presidential elections?

Let’s think about it together.

On my trip to the Gettysburg battlefields late last month, the first lesson was that Gen. Lee’s forces’ failure to keep the federal troops from seizing and holding the high ground turned out to be a critical factor.

After the first day of fighting in and around the town of Gettysburg, federal troops retreated in disarray, to the nearby Culp’s and Cemetery hills and the adjoining ridgelines.

D.G. Martin

That first day, Lee, knowing the importance of the high hills, sent a message to Gen. Ewell to take Culp’s Hill. He added the words “if practicable.” Ewell decided against making the effort.
Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and the other high ground occupied by the federals gave them a critical and overwhelming advantage that the master tactician Lee could not overcome.

So, if the importance of seizing the high ground is the lesson from Gettysburg for next year’s election, what are the high grounds that the Democrats should seize and seek to hold for the upcoming election?

There are many potential political high grounds to try to seize, almost as many as there are candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.

At the top of the list today is impeachment. Many presidential candidates are claiming this issue as their political high ground, more each day, as they respond to the demands of partisan Democrats who smell blood after reading the details of the president’s conduct outlined in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

But will the impeachment issue, however good it is for insider Democrats today, be high ground next year for the general election?

Or, will Democrats, by spending so much time on an impeachment effort that is doomed in the Senate, come across as time-wasters who have lost touch with a huge set of other challenges that need attention?

Will that turn today’s impeachment high ground into a messy swamp, something of no value to Democrats next year?

If not impeachment, where can the Democrats find high ground? Could a positive program of trade relations be a winning contrast to President Trump’s risky and seat-of-the-pants tariff actions?

More reasonable trade policies might be high ground today, but if Trump’s clumsy tactics should be followed by better arrangements with China and other countries, Democrats could find their opponent on the high ground.

Democrats appear to have an advantage on health care. Most Americans want coverage of pre-existing conditions to continue, and the Republicans have produced no viable alternative.

Democrats can protect this high ground by recognizing problems in the current law and proposing pragmatic adjustments. On the other hand, the high ground could be compromised by radical and expensive proposals.

Which side has the high ground on immigration? Democrats consider they have an advantage over President Trump’s determination to build his wall no matter what it costs or what good it actually would do.

But a problem for Democrats is that many Americans believe Democrats do not have an immigration and border protection concern. Unless they counter that impression with workable proposals, they could cede the immigration high ground to the president.

By its policies the current administration has ceded the environmental and climate change high ground. The Democrats should take it. But there is a danger for them.

The president has claimed high ground on job creation. To dislodge him, Democrats have to show that their programs for protecting the environment can be consistent with growth in employment.

Unfortunately, Gettysburg’s good lesson about the importance of taking and holding the high ground does not tell modern-day candidates exactly how to do it.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” at 11 a.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Tuesday on UNC-TV.