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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Rove Failed

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on June 16, 2009.
The new issue of Democracy magazine–the first since my esteemed friend Michael Tomasky took over as editor of the journal–feaures an essay, styled as a “re-review” of several books from a few years ago, by the equally esteemed journalist Ron Brownstein on the subject of why Karl Rove’s “realignment” project failed. It’s a good question worth pondering at some depth. But I think Ron’s take, which faults several of the authors of the “re-review” volumes for overestimating and emulating “base polarlization” as a political strategy, misses some key points.
Here’s his basic hypothesis:

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush’s reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal “wedge issues” that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove’s approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party’s base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal….
[But] Bush’s reelection proved the high point of Rove’s vision, and even that was a rather modest peak: Bush’s margin of victory, as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Through Bush’s disastrous second term, the GOP’s position deteriorated at an astonishing speed. By the time Bush left office, with Democrats assuming control of government and about two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his performance, his party was in its weakest position since before Ronald Reagan’s election. Rather than constructing a permanent Republican majority, Rove and Bush provided Democrats an opportunity to build a lasting majority of their own that none of these books saw coming.

I quoted this section at considerable length because Brownstein seems to be conflating two different if not contradictory themes: (1) that lots of people failed to understand the demographic “upside” for Democrats of the Republican focus on “wedge” issues that divided the electorate, and (2) that Rove failed because “base mobilization” and “polarization” drove a decisive number of voters into the Democratic coalition.
On the first point about demography, the puzzling omission in Brownstein’s “re-review” is any reference to The Emerging Democratic Majority, the 2002 book by (TDS Co-Editor) Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, that pretty much got it all right, not that they got much credit for it when it was published on the eve of a big Republican midterm victory.
The omission, I suspect, is attributable to Brownstein’s focus on the second point, and his concern that Democrats who wanted to emulate Rove with a counter-polarization strategy were wrong, and thus weren’t vindicated by Rove’s subsequent failure. This preoccupation may also account for an inclusion in the re-review that’s as odd as the exclusion of Teixeira and Judis: Tom Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie, which sharply distinguished itself from other mid-decade handwringing progressive tomes by predicting a bright Democratic future, but which also endorsed an anti-southern polarizing strategy that Brownstein wants to knock down.
Since I share Ron’s general antipathy to political strategies that focus excessively on base mobilization and polarization, it pains me somewhat to say that I think he exaggerates the role of those strategies in Rove’s failure.

Here’s Brownstein’s take on where Rove went wrong:

By focusing so narrowly on the priorities of his Republican base, Bush infuriated Democrats and steadily alienated independents and moderates. In both 2006 and 2008, independents broke sharply for the Democrats. The focus on “feeding the base” frustrated other efforts to expand the GOP’s reach. Hispanic voters, whom Rove and Bush initially sought to court, turned sharply away in both 2006 and 2008 after the White House, for fear of confronting the activist base, allowed conservative House Republicans to kill comprehensive immigration reform. Young people also moved decisively toward Democrats over those two elections.

This telescopes events in a questionable way. Yes, Rove always cared a lot about “feeding the base,” and yes, one of his signature moves was to decisively detach the business community from any sort of even-handed support for both parties, as a way to undermine Democratic fundraising. But from the beginning of the Bush administration, Rove spent an equal amount of time on a highly-targeted swing voter strategy that (1) appealed to married women with kids through No Child Left Behind, (2) appealed to seniors through a Medicare Rx Drug benefit, and (3) appealed to Hispanics through comprehensive immigration reform.
You could even make the argument that Bush’s foreign policies, including the decision to invade Iraq, were initially “bipartisan” in terms of taking advantage of significant pre-established Democratic support. And I strongly suspect that one Bush-Rove initiative usually thought of as “base-feeding,” their Social Security privatization scheme, was actually intended in no small part to appeal to younger “swing voters” who were thought to support the idea.
None of these high-profile gambits were aimed at the “base” or relied on “polarization;” indeed, NCLB, the Rx drug benefit, and immigration reform all involved classic bipartisan center-out legislative strategies very similar to those pursued by Bill Clinton on issues like trade and welfare reform. But they never performed any electoral magic for the GOP, and they now are at the heart of the angry conservative case that George W. Bush “betrayed conservative principles.” It’s not that Rove failed by putting all his eggs in the “base” basket; the eggs often fell between two baskets. And where Rove and Bush succeeded politically, they failed spectacularly in the real work of substantive policy results. “Swing voters” decisively turned against Bush in the autumn of 2005, when that season’s “tale of two cities”–New Orleans and Baghdad–illustrated the real-life consequences of Bush’s domestic and international policies.
None of these observations in any way contradicts Brownstein’s contention that Rove’s strategic failures, not Democratic emulation of his tactics, did most to make the 2006 and 2008 Democratic victories possible. That’s generally true, though in part because relatively few base-oriented and pro-polarization Democrats thought of Rove as a role-model or embraced the cynicism of his approach to policy. But if we are to learn from Rove’s mistakes and avoid repeating them, it’s important to understand that “base” and “swing” strategies–or for that matter, “polarization” and “bipartisan” strategies–work or fail not because of their intrinsic value for good or for ill, but because they put any political party’s values and policies to the test of voter preferences and real-world results.

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