Attention, Bill Kristol: I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.
When we speak of a Pyrrhic victory, we refer to one so costly as to make defeat preferable — as when Pyrrhus of Epirus’ “victory” at Heraclea proved so costly that it foreclosed a further incursion into Roman territory. A Pyrrhic victory must not just be devastating: it must make strategic victory, in the broader sense, impossible.
There’s no indication that the Democrats’ victory in the health care debate is even nearly Pyrrhic. Admittedly, we had to give up the public option — for now — and it sure took us long enough. But health care reform will bring real savings to real people, at a relatively low price, and as Kristol readily concedes, any exhaustion in the Democratic ranks is temporary. This is a qualified victory, but still a real one.
If Kristol is looking for a historical analogy to open with and then facetiously discard, he might turn to Quintus Fabius Maximus (Cunctator) instead. Like Fabius, congressional Republicans have built a strategy on the premise that delaying a difficult battle is its own reward. Of course, Fabius’ strategy was incomplete: it lacked an ultimate engine for victory, which later materialized only through the ingenuity and bravery of Scipio the Elder, who broke the stalemate and took the fight to Carthage.
Republicans have no Scipio, and more importantly, they aren’t looking for one. As even a casual observer of the health care debate must know, Republicans did not enter this fight to win it. At no point in this year’s long, strange health care debate did Republicans ever offer (and defend) a serious alternative plan. Delaying is all they know, all they cared to do, and all they did. This isn’t just a bad strategy: it’s no strategy at all.