In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz has what could turn out to be one of the defining commentaries of the year. She hopes Mitt Romney will show “a capacity to run a campaign not obviously dependent on the latest polls or the fears of consultants.” She urges him to avoid “the picture of hesitancy and political caution” that John McCain displayed in 2008, and instead emulate the “formidable, cogent, and relentless” Obama critic we see in John McCain today, “a man free of useless caution.”
Having observed several major political campaigns up close, and being a lifelong student of military history, I would take Rabinowitz’s point a step further: Caution can be worse than useless. One must always be careful, but that’s not the same thing. In any field of strategy, an overabundance of caution is usually suicidal. And in general, taking a risk-averse approach with you on the campaign trail is often the most reckless thing you can do. Of all of Napoleon’s vast treasury of sayings, perhaps the most famous is: l’audace, toujours l’audace.
And these are times that call for audacity. Our generation faces a moment of historic decision. Perhaps never in American history have two more different visions of government been so evenly pitted against each other for the people to choose. In one vision, government is the center of public life, and economic freedom is equated with a dehumanizing descent into “social Darwinism.” In the other vision, limited government, economic freedom, and self-reliance are essential for a society to be both successful and virtuous, while the entitlement state creates a dehumanizing descent into enfeebled dependency. Down one path lies the road to Greek-style perdition; down the other lies a chance for renewal and resurgence.
Henry Kissinger once said that the essence of statecraft is to extract from the compulsion of circumstances an element of choice. From the people’s point of view, the same is true of elections: Their purpose is to give people a real historical choice. Historical choice is as elusive in democratic politics as it is in diplomacy. But the better our leaders succeed in framing the choice ahead in terms of a bold historical vision, the clearer and more historic the choice will be. So please: l’audace, toujous l’audace.