Still in the trenches
A pre-Christmas lull in political combat probably means less than meets the eye
THE idea of the Christmas truce is a potent one. A celebrated example took place in December 1914, when first-world-war troops climbed warily from trenches at points along the Western Front. As freezing fog swirled, British and allied soldiers met German foes to barter cigarettes, sing carols and kick footballs on no-man's-land. The moment passed into myth, inspiring poems, films and a (pretty terrible) Paul McCartney song. Britain is marking the centenary lavishly, with a new monument and memorial football matches around the world. Far-off Washington was not left out, with British and Canadian diplomats playing a German-embassy team in America's capital on December 14th.
Yet the meaning of Christmas 1914 is in danger of being muddled. In too many tellings, the truce is hailed as something between a protest and a premonition: a declaration of shared humanity by ordinary soldiers, before heartless commanders sent them to their deaths. History's record is more complicated. That first December the trenches were newly dug, and both sides could imagine that total victory was at hand. The small-scale Christmas truces of 1914 were as much a display of misplaced confidence as an outbreak of pacifism. The truces' moral is rather bleak: those embarking on the first industrial war had little idea of the murderous stalemate that lay ahead. After bitter reality sank in, few called for cheery Christmas games with the enemy.
Without stretching the analogy too far, lessons are there for Congress, after members marked the holiday season with a moment of unusual comity. After a tense few days, including a Saturday session in the Senate, members of the House of Representatives and senators avoided shutting the government down, crossing party lines to pass a $1.1 trillion spending bill. This marked a win for the Republicans' “governing wing”: party members who believe that voters, having handed them control of both chambers of Congress in November's mid-term elections, expect them to do more than shout “No” during President Barack Obama's final two years in office. Such Republicans formed coalitions with moderate Democrats to push back populists on the right and left who opposed elements of the spending bill with enough fervour to flirt with closing down the government. Front-page headlines hailed a “rare bipartisan success”, and Senate veterans used such words as “hope”.
In a striking display of establishment confidence, Republican senators publicly berated their colleague Ted Cruz of Texas, a darling of the grassroots, putative presidential contender and the man chiefly responsible for forcing the Senate back into session over the weekend. Mr Cruz had held up the spending bill to demand a show-vote on whether the constitution allows Mr Obama to shield millions of migrants from deportation—a ploy that had no chance of stopping the president but did delight Cruz supporters (and inadvertently allowed Democrats extra time to confirm some contested presidential nominees before ceding control of the Senate). Though 21 colleagues felt it prudent to join Mr Cruz in a symbolic vote condemning Mr Obama's immigration policy, many more opposed him.
A rebellion on the Democratic left was also seen off. Its leader, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, vocally opposed a provision in the spending bill which, at Wall Street's behest, weakens a part of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law that forces banks to shift some derivatives away from government safety nets. Like Mr Cruz, Ms Warren has a talent for reducing complex policy to stirring battle-cries, calling the spending bill—an unlovely collection of gifts to special interests, with goodies for Democrats and Republicans, but few big policy shifts—“a vote for future taxpayer bail-outs of Wall Street” which, if repeated, might leave America with “no financial regulations at all”.
Other Democrats saw a larger interest in taking the best deal they could get, in the last days before Republicans assume control of both the House and the Senate in the new year. During their Saturday session such pragmatic Democrats joined a bipartisan group of senators singing carols around a piano just off the Senate floor, and crooning “I'll Be Home for Christmas”.
Alas, the signs are that powerful forces in both parties saw the spending deal as a momentary, tactical ceasefire. Detached observers may see American democracy as increasingly locked in a 50-50 stalemate, in which Democrats dominate urban areas and enjoy a slight majority among the overall population, while Republicans have the edge among those citizens (notably older, whiter and richer folk) who reliably vote. Both parties may have fought each other to a draw in a technological arms race, perfecting gerrymandering, data-mining, and voter-targeting tools which allow core supporters to be fired up and turned out to vote with unprecedented efficiency. But—like massed armies in 1914—partisans still dream that sweeping victories are within grasp.
One more heave, and on to victory
Many on the right think that Republicans have a simple mandate once they fully control Congress: to thwart Mr Obama on every front until a proper conservative takes the White House in 2016 (two-thirds of Republicans told a recent Pew Research Centre poll that their party leaders should “stand up” to Mr Obama, even if less gets done in Washington as a result). Many on the left are sure that a majority of Americans loathe Wall Street and believe that the middle classes have been stiffed, giving a fiery economic populist like Ms Warren a clear path to power (on December 13th more than 300 former Obama campaign staff signed a letter calling on the Massachusetts senator to run for president).
In short, too many partisans on left and right look at an unhappy electorate and see woes that can be harnessed to bring them victory without the need to compromise. It is a relief that America's government was not shut down this Christmas. But do not mistake a lull in combat for lasting peace.