Over Rove

David Frum writes in today’s New York Times:

AS a political strategist, Karl Rove offered a brilliant answer to the wrong question.

The question he answered so successfully was a political one: How could Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?

The question he unfortunately ignored was a policy question: What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it?

It occurs to me that one could say something similar about the DLC. They’re still answering the question “How can Democrats win elections after Reagan and the VRWC moved the nation so far Right?” And the question they ignored was “How do we correct the nation’s political culture and move the nation back to the center?” But this is a post about Rove and his lasting impact on the Republican party.

Frum goes on to say that Rove’s polarizing tactics united the GOP base, but it also united the Democratic Party base.

Play-to-the-base politics can be a smart strategy — so long as your base is larger than your opponents’.

But it has been apparent for many years that the Democratic base is growing faster than the Republican base. The numbers of the unmarried and the non-churchgoing are growing faster than the numbers of married and church-going Americans. The nonwhite and immigrant population is growing at a faster rate than that of white native-borns. …

…Mr. Rove often reminded me of a miner extracting the last nuggets from an exhausted seam. His attempts to prospect a new motherlode have led the Republican party into the immigration debacle.

The “new motherlode” was Latino voters, of course. Rove also tried to make inroads into the African-American vote by wooing some black evangelical ministers, but that attempt was flooded out by Katrina.

Seems to me that in attempting to “mine” Latino votes, Rove stepped on a land mine planted by Richard Nixon. It was Nixon who had the brilliant idea to win white voters away from the Democrats by exploiting racism — the Southern strategy. As explained by Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips in 1970, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” Reagan tapped into the same vein with his stories about welfare queens. Rove must not have noticed that the cornerstone of his base is bigotry.

Josh Marshall has a good analysis of Frum’s column. Right now I want to look at just one part of GOP base, the Christian right.

A number of Karl Rove retrospectives online today give Rove credit for cobbling together a coalition of small government conservatives and religious conservatives, but I say not all that credit is deserved. As noted here, right-wing religion and right-wing politics have been fellow travelers in America since at least the 1930s. Richard Hofstadter wrote in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962, p. 131):

Their heightened sense of isolation and impotence helped to bring many of the dwindling but still numerically significant fundamentalists into the ranks of a fanatical right-wing opposition to the New Deal. The fundamentalism of the cross was now supplemented by a fundamentalism of the flag. Since the 1930’s, fundamentalism has been a significant component in the extreme right in American politics, whose cast of thought often shows strong fundamentalist filiations.

Ronald Reagan is likewise given credit for bringing evangelical Christians into the conservative camp. But I think it’s more correct that many evangelicals were already there, in particular the Premillenialists. Reagan simply signaled to them that the GOP was now ready to champion their views. Gary Wills wrote in 1988,

The other sign of the End, the Antichrist, took visible shape for these Christians in the Communist empire — which is why they were so excited when Ronald Reagan referred to that as the “Evil Empire” and “the focus of all evil in the world.” A leader who would recognize that was, for them, another sign. Detail after detail could be put together. Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark became “the mark of the Beast” from Revelation (13:17). Ezekial 38 and 39 suggested that the last war would begin with an invasion from the north; Falwell sought etymological linkages between Russian and biblical names. The invaders would come for “spoil,” and all you had to do was take off that word’s first two letters to get the reason for Soviet invasion of the Middle East. [Gary Wills, reprinted in Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990) p. 150]

But the links between the U.S.S.R. and Satan were already well established in many Christian’s heads. I well remember that illustrations in my Sunday School literature of the 1950s often portrayed Nikita Khrushchev or other Soviet leaders standing with the Devil, while Jesus hovered protectively over the United States. And this was a Lutheran Sunday School. I can’t imagine what the kids were being taught at the Assembly of God church down the street.

In other words, the connection between Satan and Communism was old news when Reagan came along. All he did was let right-wing Christians know that he “got” it.

I want to go back to Gary Wills and the 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. “Poppy” Bush.

Bush was paying court to evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker in that same period, hoping for an endorsement from them while they were still in their glory days of running Heritage USA, the patriotic theme park. Reagan had won evangelicals away from Jimmy Carter, one of their own, in 1980, capturing the electorally important South. That region stayed with him in 1984, though he had not pushed very hard for causes like prayer in school. Now the evangelicals, feeling powerful, were ready to make harder demands — even, in 1988, to run one of their own. It was time for Reagan’s party to deliver. [Wills, ibid., p. 79]

Poppy actually went further to court the religious Right than Reagan did. Bush publicly declared that Jesus was his “personal savior,” which is not something one normally hears from a High Church WASP like #41. Reagan, Wills said, had deftly side-stepped personal confessions of faith, but Bush needed to go the extra mile, so to speak, to win them over. Further, running mate Dan Quayle was a disciple of a Dispensationalist named Robert Thieme, which may have been a factor in his being chosen for the ticket. Wills wrote (op cit., p. 80) that Bush “had finally got religion by the balls.” Perhaps, but the evangelical vote didn’t seem much of a factor when Poppy lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Poppy really wasn’t one of them.

Now let’s pick up what Lou Dubose writes in Salon about Karl Rove:

In Texas, we saw this modern iteration of the Republican Party come together in the summer or 1994, as Bush kicked off his first successful run for public office. (He had lost a congressional race in West Texas in 1978, in which Rove was only marginally involved.) Social conservatives had already joined together with economic conservatives when Ronald Reagan got into bed with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. But it was Rove who consecrated the union. A nominal Christian and Episcopalian, Rove had little regard for the evangelical extremists who have become essential to the success of the modern Republican Party, even cracking the occasional joke about his own lack of faith.

Then the Christian right showed up at the Republicans’ state convention in Fort Worth, in 1994, with enough delegates to seize control of the party. The dominant Christian faction tossed George H.W. Bush’s handpicked state chairman and longtime friend, Fred Meyer, out of office and replaced him with a charismatic Catholic lawyer from Dallas. It banned liquor from convention hotels and replaced hospitality-room bars with “ice cream sundae bars,” where chefs prepared designer confections. It summoned delegates to Grand Old Prayer Sessions, required Christian fealty oaths of candidates for party leadership, and made opposition to abortion the brand by which Texas Republicans would be defined.

This political great awakening was not unique to Texas. But it occurred in a context in which a brilliant, Pygmalion political consultant saw in George W. Bush a malleable idol who could be fashioned into a governor and ultimately a president. And Bush was a candidate whose genuine evangelical faith was an asset rather than a liability. After initially fighting the dominant evangelical delegation at the state convention — proposing Texas Rep. Joe Barton as a compromise candidate for state party chairman — Rove joined them.

By all accounts not religious himself, Rove masterfully exploited religion as a campaign resource. To cement the relationship, right-wing Christians were given places of honor both in the campaigns and in the Bush Administration. But neither Rove nor Bush seem to have given enough thought to the long-term consequences of turning the Republican Party — never mind the government — over to fanatics and absolutists.

First, says Dubose, “the larger public — and even the Republican Party, if the candidacy of Rudy Giuliani means anything — has grown weary of the Christian right.” Remember, the “Christian right” represents a minority of Christians. The large majority of Christians do not believe in the Rapture and are not keen on starting Armageddon anytime soon. I’ve heard much anecdotal evidence recently that even many Southern, socially conservative Christians are tired of politicians who ceaselessly harp on guns, God, gays, and abortion, but have little to say about kitchen-table issues — jobs, pensions, health care, gas prices. Not to mention Iraq.

Second, you can’t very well maintain a governing coalition with people who won’t compromise and who do not even tolerate, much less respect, opposing opinions. (Disagreement with them is not just disagreement; it is Evil.) As I wrote here, Rove’s biggest blind spot is his failure to see that campaigning is not governing. Making promises and smearing opponents only takes an office holder so far. At some point he needs to follow up on promises and see to it that his policies are working. Rove and Bush seem to have plenty of the vision thing; what they don’t have is the accomplishment thing.

And third, now that the Christian right owns the Republican Party, it remains to be seen if the GOP can nominate someone moderate enough to win the general election.

Deb Reichmann of the Associated Press reported recently that President Bush still has majority support of only three demographic groups:

The only subgroups where a majority of people give Bush the nod are Republicans (67 percent), conservatives (53 percent) and white evangelicals who attend religious services at least once a week (56 percent).

These are the same three subsets of voters who support Bush on Iraq.

White evangelicals as an entire bloc – regardless of how often they report going to church – have been a reliable support group for Bush since he first set foot in the Oval Office. But even their overall approval of the president declined to 44 percent last month from 57 percent in May – a decline driven partly by bad news from the battlefield in Iraq and conservatives’ opposition to Bush’s ideas on immigration.

Of course, there are plenty of people who have soured on Bush but who are still inclined to vote for Republicans. But in a close election, can a GOP candidate afford to distance himself from the Christian right base? I doubt it. But can a presidential candidate packaged to appeal to the Christian right win a general election? I doubt it. What’s a Republican party to do?

And might I point out that the GOP didn’t have this problem back in Dwight Eisenhower’s day. But that was a long time ago.