Captain Charles MacDonald spent all day lost in a foggy forest. “Good God! Are there Germans everywhere in these woods? … Will I never stop running from Germans?”

Wounded, dejected, MacDonald brought what was left of his company back to friendly lines. Only later did he learn what he had done. (More)

Scattered Reflections, Part III – On Then, From Now

This week Morning Feature offered some scattered reflections on the past month. Wednesday I shared some Fritzflüstern (Fred Whispering) experiences on how Germans see the U.S. Yesterday I shared some thoughts on European politics. Today I’ll try to tie it all together. Tomorrow is Christmas, so we’ll take a break from politics to review a 1st century blog from Judea recently unearthed by our Department of Pseudoarcheology.

Lost in the Fog

It’s often hard to see progress in the heat of the moment. For Captain MacDonald, it was hard to see anything. A company commander with the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, his mission was to advance through the northern Ardennes in Belgium, part of an assault to outflank and capture the Roer River dams. It was the morning of December 16,1944. By that afternoon MacDonald thought himself a failure.

A couple of weeks ago, we drove through the very forest MacDonald entered. It may be impossible to convey in words the sense of isolation. Towering pines grow so close that their branches overlap and sunlight rarely reaches the ground. In December, hovering in and even beneath the trees is a fog so dense you often can barely see ten yards.

The woods are cut by firebreaks only a few feet wide. MacDonald’s orders were to navigate by those firebreaks. But some had grown over. With no meaningful landmarks, it was impossible to be sure where he was. In a frantic radio call, he told a company on his flank to stop firing on his men. But the fire was not coming not from Americans. He was surrounded. With more of his men getting hit at every turn, and finally wounded himself, MacDonald abandoned the attack and began trying to find friendly lines.

He led his men back, and only then did MacDonald learn of the major German attack that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. His company had wandered through the woods among the lead German elements, confusing and delaying their advance. From from a failure, his company’s action had given his division precious time to reorganize and hold the northern edge of the bulge. But he couldn’t see that in the fog.

The Fog of Events

Looking back over the past two years – after a three week break where I couldn’t follow every daily development – I now think that at times I was lost as Captain MacDonald. In reviewing and reacting to each new day’s events, it’s hard to see real landmarks. While I try to keep a positive attitude, there were many days that I thought: “Will we never stop running from Republicans?”

This fall was especially hard. The midterm elections felt crushing. In their wake, with conservatives gloating over the prospect of a government shutdown, the Bowles-Simpson Commission poised to gut Social Security, not-yet-governors in Wisconsin and Ohio already dictating policy, and the talk of permanently extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, it seemed that elected Democrats had surrendered or been overrun at every level of government. Policy gains over the past two years seemed to shrivel into insignificance.

But that was my view in the fog.

A Clearer View

Consider these reviews quoted yesterday by Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

“This is probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the ‘60s.” — Alan Brinkley, Columbia University historian, Bloomberg 12/22/10

“The 111th Congress is going to go down as one of the most productive in terms of its legislative accomplishments, their sweep and scope and breadth, certainly in our lifetimes and probably within the 20th century.” — Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, Financial Times 12/14/10

“… Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition…” — David Leonhardt, New York Times 5/22/10

Or consider this insightful comment by E.J. Dionne in yesterday’s Washington Post:

It is a tribute to the 111th Congress that its achievements will largely set the agenda for the 112th. The new Republican House majority is devoted less to a bold agenda of its own than to repealing, scaling back or derailing the accomplishments of the outgoing majority. [Emphasis added.]

… And some of the 111th’s achievements will stand without challenge because they so plainly reflected the country’s will. Congressional leaders never gave up on ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” knowing they were building on a three-decade-long revolution in the attitudes of average Americans toward gays and lesbians. That really is a change we can believe in.

That so many other reforms have been virtually unheralded is another monument to the efforts of Obama’s Orphans. Bills that in another Congress would have loomed large were passed with hardly a ripple in the media.

Dionne cites new food safety regulations, fixing the student loan program, regulations on the credit card industry, the new financial consumer protection agency, improved children’s health programs, and an expansion of national service opportunities as just a few examples. And while their confirmations caused more than a ripple in the media, I’ll add our new Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

How Far We’ve Come

Read Dionne’s words again, especially those I put in bold face. Only a few years ago, the mainstream political dialogue focused on how much of government to privatize: not just schools and Social Security, but even our military. Blackwater (now XE) had an exclusive contract to provide private security after national disasters. Towns and small cities discussed contracting out local government to ‘civic administration’ companies. The political buzz was all about creating an “ownership society.” Investment bankers publicly boasted of their roles as “masters of the universe.”

Republicans may still harbor those ambitions, but they won’t get to advance them for the next two years. Instead, like the Wehrmacht in December 1944, they’re fighting to retake lost ground. And like the Wehrmacht in December 1944, what now seems like a flood tide may be only a last, desperate gamble to stave off ultimate defeat. Young voters are more progressive than any in decades, and our increasing Latino population shows little interest in a party that regards all of them as foreign invaders.

President Obama and Democrats in the 111th Congress made a lot of progress in the past two years. In the fog, it often seemed we were always running from Republicans. It now looks like they were on the run.

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Happy Friday!