The Corpse of Karl Rove
Karl Rove may or may not be indicted for outing Valerie Plame, obstruction of justice, or espionage. My gut feeling says Rove will get to do a perp walk, but I don't have any sources in Fitzgerald's office to confirm this. I do know, however, that the Rove formula for political success is dead. Much of Rove's success with George Bush has been in promoting the George Bush regular guy, strong leader persona. But now that Haditha, Brownie, Harriet, and three dollar gas have made Bush personally repugnant even to the constituents of Republican congressmen, Rove can't do anything to help Bush even if he does stay out of jail.
But let's face it Democrats, Karl Rove has a lot of political success working with fairly unpromising material in the person of George Bush. So we would do well to think carefully about the extent to how Rove's strategems worked and what lessons the Democrats might take from them. Rove isn't just about appealing to the Republican base. After 9-11, Rove focused on promoting Bush as a "strong leader," emphasizing the extent to which Bush stood for his principles and refused to compromise. The Democratic leadership, used to the "let's make a deal" atmosphere of Washington from Reagan and Clinton, was caught completely off guard and hasn't recovered. The emphasis on principle played well with swing voters who disagreed with Bush on most issues. The Democrats, with their constant efforts to please everybody, look unprincipled by contrast. Kerry's vacillating on abortion during the second debate made him look especially weak and killed him with a lot of voters. If the Democrats are going to recover, the Democratic leaderis is going to have to stand up for its own principles as much as Rush Limbaugh stands up for his. And this is not a bad thing.
Building on talk radio, Karl Rove also initiated an attitude of non-stop aggression toward the Democratic opposition. Talk radio pounces on just about every statement by the Democratic leadership, sometimes spending hours criticizing single sentences. In the same vein, Bush campaigned for his first tax cut in Daschle's home state of South Dakota and aggressively supported campaigns against Democratic incumbents like Max Cleland and Tom Daschle. The Democratic leadership hasn't recovered from this either. One of the reasons that you don't hear much from the Democrats on the war, gas prices, Tom DeLay, Plame, or the budget is that Democratic leaders know that speaking up will get them trashed for six hours the next day on Limbaugh and Hannity. So, they stay in their foxholes hoping the Bushies will blow it themselves. The seemingly permanent intimidation of the Democratic leadership is another successful element in Roveism. A successful Democratic party would have to carry the fight to the Republicans in the same way. The Democrats are far from having an effective fighting leadership, but that's definitely the direction we need to take.
The final piece of successful Roveism that is his approach to the base vote/ swing voter dilemna. The Clinton Democrats sought to govern from a business-oriented, conservative, DLC center. The balanced budget, NAFTA, welfare reform, Don't Ask--Don't Tell, and other Clinton policies were designed to appease business and conservative interests. If labor, blacks, middle-class white liberals, feminists, or gays didn't like these policies, they were stiffed. One of the major reasons Gore lost in 2000 was that enough left-wing voters peeled off the Democrats in New Hampshire and Florida to hand those states to the Republicans. To the contrary, Rove has focused policy on appealing to the party base, but the Bush White House also made concerted efforts to formulate their hard-core conservative policies in ways that spoke to the values and interests of swing voters as well. That's why the Bush administration framed initiatives like the invasion of Iraq in the liberal language of secularism, democracy, and women's rights.
In this sense, Rove's strategy was exactly the opposite of the DLC's. Where the DLC reached out from swing voters to slap the base, Rove reached out from the Republican base to appeal to swing voters.The Democrats need to do the same thing. They need to articulate policies on Iraq, health care, and other issues that speak to the principles of the Democratic base. At the same time, the Democrats need to articulate those perspectives in terms that speak to the values and interests of middle-class white swing voters. If the Democrats do not speak to the principles of the liberal base, swing-voters will continue to view them as the party of pandering rather than leadership. If the Democrats don't articulate a fundamentally liberal vision in language that speaks to swing voters, they will only be playing to the chorus. Right now, the Democratic leadership is losing on both counts. The base doesn't respect them and swing voters don't trust them. Until they start standing up for Democratic principles in a broad fashion, the Democratic leadership will continue to be a laughing stock.
Let me give a couple of policies and themes the Democrats can develop.
1. THE WAR
The Dems should admit that they were mistaken in supporting the war. They were fooled into thinking that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and they didn't take the Bushies seriously enough when they talked about an aggressive effort to remake the Arab world in our image. They didn't realize that the Bush administration would do such a poor job that Iraq is now a major home to global terrorism.Then, the Dems should say that they are going to stay in Iraq until we defeat that terrorist threat that has developed there since the invasion. By portraying the Bush administration as creating a huge dangerous mess, the Democrats will be speaking to both the base and swing voters. By portraying themselves as cleaning up the mess, the Dems would be speaking to a real problem in a voice of quiet determination that will appeal to swing voters after years of Bush blustering.
2. A More Just Society
The Dems should seek to redress the increasing imbalance between the wealthy and the middle class. This theme covers a lot of issues--reigning in the humongous salaries of top corporate management, increasing taxes on the top income groups, encouraging investment in the U. S. rather than overseas, and adapting a reasonable health care plan that benefits the patients and businesses that pay for health care first. The Democratic leadership could promote these kinds of policies through a theme of "restoring the balance" between the interests of business, consumers, and the middle class. This is a theme that would doubtlessly resonate with the base, but would also appeal to middle-class swing voters who feel burdened by health care costs, outraged by corporate corruption, and uneasy that the pendulum in American politics has swung so far toward business interests.
The Democrats could develop other themes that would be consistent with Democratic policies. "Restoring Responsible Government" and "Building Stronger Communities" would be good examples. The goal, however, is to develop policies and rhetoric that speak from the party base to middle-class swing voters.