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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Hidden In Plain Sight

Most of the time, pre-State-of-the-Union thumbsuckers are a waste of newsprint, full of administration spin and extended recycling of the most Conventional of CW. But Tom Edsall and John Harris of the Washington Post manage to convey something of importance in today’s brief but pointed front-pager: the constituency-group motivation behind most of George W. Bush’s domestic policy agenda. The extraordinary attention the GOPers are paying to so-called “tort reform,” for example, is a simple function of the amount of money trial lawyers contribute to Democrats, and the amount of money their enemies are beginning to contribute to Republicans. Similarly, the administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce public employee rights is no accident, and is driven less by ideology than by the amount of money public employee unions contribute to Democrats.
The article, naturally, quotes Grover Norquist, whose willingness to cheerfully admit the deeper motivations of GOP strategy makes him sort of the Norm Ornstein of the Conservative Id.
While noting that investment firms which would enormously benefit from transferring Social Security funds to private accounts have also been heavy givers to the GOP, Edsall and Harris generally appear to think the administration’s SocSec offensive is more a matter of ideology than hard-ball reward-your-friends-and-punish-your-enemies tactics. And that’s why the proposal may well represent a dangerous act of hubris, they suggest, aiming at destruction of the Crown Jewel of the New Deal at a time when Republicans don’t have a firm majority of consistent public support.
While this argument makes sense, Edsall and Harris may be missing two other well-established characteristics of the Karl Rove GOP: tactical flexibility and a belief that polarization works in their favor.
Going all the way back to Texas, Bush’s M.O. has been extremely consistent: push your proposals again and again and again without compromising at all, until the moment when defeat is imminent, and then either cut a deal or switch to something else, with never a hint that anything has changed. So what if the Republican chairmen of the House Committee and Subcommittee with jursidiction over Social Security have called Bush’s proposal DOA? Admitting that before the White House is ready for Plan B, whatever it is, would be like, well, admitting Mistakes Were Made In Iraq. (An instructive exception, of course, is Bush’s willingness to back off on pushing a Gay Marriage constitutional amendment because of the political landscape in the Senate–a surefire indication that he doesn’t really want to deal with the issue now that it has served its purpose in his re-election campaign).
But the second factor–keeping the debate in Washington as polarized as possible–is also important. There is zero doubt in my mind that Karl Rove thinks an ideologically polarized electorate will always tilt towards the GOP since self-identified conservatives outnumber self-indentified liberals by a three-to-two margin. At any given moment, you can expect Bush to be pushing at least one major initiative that literally makes Democrats crazy with rage. That rage, in turn, will make the actual policy dispute look like nothing more than a partisan food-fight to much of the non-polarized electorate, thus shifting the center of gravity of any given debate sharply to the right. Rove and Bush have pursued this strategy again and again. It’s hardly infallible, but it does create a trap for Democrats unless they are smart enough to modulate their anger according to the actual importance of a given issue, and offer positive alternatives instead of just negative opposition.
All three strands of this GOP strategy–extraordinary constituency-tending, tactical flexibility, and deliberate polarization–are right out there in public, hidden in plain sight; understanding them does not require any sort of taste for conspiracy.
But what’s really, really remarkable, as the Edsall-Harris piece implicitly demonstrates, is that actually making conditions in the country better doesn’t seem to show up anywhere in the Bush-Rove priority list.
For a long time, I’ve wondered if these guys want to entrench themselves in power perpetually, or just want to do as much damage as possible before they are driven from office. The answer, apparently, is they want to do both, by pursuing an agenda that creates power through the crudest possible methods: money and divisiveness. If I’m right, then it should be no surprise that the initiatives that really excite them are those which offer to enrich one group of Americans at the direct expense of others.

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