Over Rove

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Bush Administration, conservatism, elections, Karl Rove, Religion

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Pat  •  Aug 14, 2007 @3:51 pm

    This association of leaders of countries with the devil manifests itself in many ways. We do not talk with the devil ergo we will not talk with countries deemed part of the axis of evil.

    Even today’s democrats are careful with this — Hilary qualifies her willingness to engage in diplomacy by stressing that this is done only after first having a thorough understanding of “our interests” as they relate to the country in question. Naturally, that goes without saying, so the emphasis is curious and IMHO a play to those who might believe we should not be engaging in diplomacy at all with so-called “axis of evil” countries.

  2. ken melvin  •  Aug 14, 2007 @4:19 pm

    Great job pulling this together.

  3. D.R. Marvel  •  Aug 14, 2007 @5:48 pm

    Excellent anaysis Maha…

    I’ll nominate you for “Hillbilly Pundit of the Year” at Atrios’ next DFH convention…

    I’ll even get you a Marvelism T-shirt: “I Ain’t Crazy – I’m Right”

  4. joanr16  •  Aug 14, 2007 @6:09 pm

    For reasons I can’t quite explain, this post brings to mind a cartoon caption by the late British poet, Stevie Smith:

    Uncle Torquemada, does Beppo know about Jesus?

    The cartoon was of a little girl, speaking to a giant man in a robe and mitre, about her tiny dog.

    Hmm. Maybe I can find some meaning to that quote. Maybe little girl should worry less about whether Beppo knows Jesus, and more about whether he’s been fed today.

  5. sniflheim  •  Aug 14, 2007 @7:45 pm

    Glenn Greenwald has maintained that authoritarianism will trump principle with Republican voters. I see no sign that he’s wrong. We’ll see if they can keep suckering enough of the rest of us though.

  6. maha  •  Aug 14, 2007 @7:51 pm

    I see no sign that he’s wrong. We’ll see if they can keep suckering enough of the rest of us though.

    That’s the catch for Republicans. They can’t win in ’08 unless they pull in a chunk of the independent vote.

  7. James E. Powell  •  Aug 15, 2007 @1:53 am

    Rove is no genius.

    He lost 2000. Bush got the White House because his brother was Governor of Florida and his campaign manager in Florida was a corrupt and loyal hack. And even then they needed a save from the right wing Supreme Court.

    Okay, Rove is a genius if he convinced Al Quaeda to do 9/11. Without 9/11, Republicans lose seats in 2002, Iraq is not invaded, with no Big Terror and no bloody flag to wave in 2004, Bush gets sent home.

    Rove’s genius is exactly the same as Giuliani’s “leadership” on 9/11. He was there when things he had nothing to do with happened. The nature and habits of our corporate press/media resulted in a narrative that promoted what he was doing.

    The press/media insanity that was the Clinton years and the War on Gore was neither engineered nor directed by Rove.

    The national mental breakdown after 9/11 created a wave that obscured the fact that Bush is a terrible politician, almost devoid of talent for policy or for leadership, and that the policies advanced by the Bush/Cheney Junta, and Rove, were never popular or good.

    Spit on his grave already.

  8. marijam  •  Aug 15, 2007 @7:40 am

    All the Republicans have to do, to pull in Independents, is come out with a workable plan for immigration reform. Mark my words, there is more than enough anecotal evidence to support a claim that there is a very large block of Republicans, and Democrats as well, who want to see our borders enforced and illegal immigration stopped. It is a moral and an ethical issue. True, there are bigots and racists that are part of it, but, for the most part, it makes little sense to have a war on terrorism while continuing to have wide open borders.

  9. maha  •  Aug 15, 2007 @9:27 am

    marijam — I think you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around the unsubtle nuances of American politics. Read this slowly and carefully:

    Of course, plenty of people want to see border security enforced and illegal immigration hindered as much as possible. *I* want to see that. I suspect close to 100 percent of Democrats, not to mention Republicans, in Congress now want to see that. I can’t think of a single elected official in Washington who doesn’t want to see that. Maybe there is one, but I wouldn’t know who it might be.

    OK, are we clear on that point? It’s not enough for a politician to stand up and say “I want to see our borders enforced and illegal immigration stopped,” because they’re all in favor of that.

    So, if everyone in Washington is already in favor border security and stopping illegal immigration, why couldn’t the immigration reform bill pass?

    It was NOT because some block of liberal do-gooder congress critters wanted “open borders.” This is a right-wing fantasy. If that’s what you thought, stop listening to right-wing radio. Those people are lying to you.

    There were a number of issues involved, but the biggest, grossest hangups were these:

    1. What to do about illegal aliens already here. The hard right wants them all rounded up and deported, which would require unimaginable resources and still couldn’t be done. And it would split up families and make us look like monsters to the rest of the world. Others would rather find some way to document the illegals already here and allow them to stay here as long as they are law-abiding. This is what the righties are calling “shamnesty,” and it’s the biggest deal-breaker, I think.

    2. HOW does one secure the borders? The hard right wants a fence. They will listen to no other solutions; it’s a fence or nothing. Others (like me) think the fence would be a huge waste of money. Build a 10-foot fence, and someone will find an 11-foot ladder. There is technology, including satellite surveillance, that could be put to use to do a better job than the damnfool fence.

    3. Guest workers. I am twitchy about the guest worker thing; it sounds like “cheap labor” to me. But this gets at why immigration is causing such a fissure in the Republican Party. The “pro-business” wing of the party wants to import cheap labor, but others in the party aren’t having it. I think the guest worker idea needs a lot more thought and discussion, and I can’t be critical of people who are opposed to it.

    Let’s go back to points #1 and #2. The motivations behind the demand to deport illegals and to build the fence are mostly racist ones, which is made clear by the Right’s own rhetoric and its hysteria over a “second Mexican war.”

    I’ve had this discussion with you before, and I’m not going to explain these things again.

  10. marijam  •  Aug 15, 2007 @12:04 pm

    maha, have you heard of the NAU? How about the SPP? How about the North American Corridor? It isn’t something that has been made up.
    Point 1 – if the laws on the books are enforced, many will leave of their own accord and it will act as a deterrent to others.
    Point 2 – a fence does work. It is currently working where we have one on the border. Just ask the people who own property on the U.S. side.
    Point 3 – Agreed. Migrant workers for crops are needed. But workers who are an underclass and therefore easy to exploit, now that’s a whole different question.
    Point 4 – I am not a racist, and yes, there are racists involved. But this is not a racist issue at heart. It is an issue of National Sovereignty. What I am willing to call myself is a Nationalist. I am not a “global citizen”. Nor am I a citizen of the Northern Hemisphere, nor am I a citizen of the NAU. I am an American citizen. Part of the problem with the illegal immigrants is that they are not assimilating. Another part of the problem is that they are taking jobs away from Americans who are here legally and have a legal right to live and work here.

  11. joanr16  •  Aug 15, 2007 @1:16 pm

    marijam, what is this “Nationalist” crap? Are you pureblooded Native American? If not, then your “nationalism” is based purely on your non-American ancestors getting their claim in, and to heck with everyone who comes after. “Nationalist” describes people like Milosevic, Franco, McVeigh. They too had problems with people “not assimilating.” You need to rethink quite a few things, if you believe you’re a “nationalist.”

    And if that effing fence is ever built, remember, it will keep us all in just as well as keeping your laundry list of undesirables out.

  12. maha  •  Aug 15, 2007 @1:19 pm

    I prefer patriots to nationalists. More nationalism is about the last thing we need right now.

    Marijam, didn’t you tell me once you were an immigrant? I don’t think you quite understand this country. And you are definitely listening to the wrong people.

  13. moonbat  •  Aug 15, 2007 @2:15 pm

    How about the North American Corridor? It isn’t something that has been made up.

    This is a persistent scare myth from the right. Digby had an article on it just yesterday. When I see photographs of it, I might believe it. Until that time, it’s black helicopter stuff, used to scare people.

    Point 2 – a fence does work. It is currently working where we have one on the border. Just ask the people who own property on the U.S. side.

    People will simply travel to where there isn’t a fence – for example to the ocean. Or dig under it. Or find some way around it. I agree with you that a fence has some limited ability to fend off those who don’t want to put that much effort into getting into this country, but given its enormous expense and its limited effectiveness, it hardly seems worthwhile. Of course it works for property owners on the other side, but only for them.

    I agree with joanr16 – the right would love to turn this country into their own version of East Berlin, with walls, watchtowers, spy satellites, barbed wire and dogs. They’re so afraid of everything that they have no problem walling themselves in – the gated community writ large. Only then might they feel secure.

    Their exaggerated fears of anything not like them is a bigger problem than the real threats this country faces. And so I’m not willing to spend my tax money turning America into East Berlin just to placate these stupid conservative crybabies who can’t sleep without the light on.

  14. marijam  •  Aug 15, 2007 @6:08 pm

    My ancestors applied for, and got, visas and were here LEGALLY. And no, I am not “Timothy McVeigh”. Talk about your crackpot extremes. Maha, a patriot is, by definition, a nationalist. Explain to me how they can NOT be. No, I am not an immigrant. On my grandfathers side my ancestors came over on the Mayflower. On my other grandfathers side, he was a Russian Jew who was expelled during a Russian progrom. If you think all cultures are equally valid, I disagree. If they are all so great, then why bother coming to America? It means something to be an American.

    No, the North American corridor is not a myth. It’s real. I should know. I grew up close to I-35 which is where it’s planned to go through. I know the talks that are being held by the local mayors, in the small towns, who are wondering how they are going to deal with the traffic and other concerns.

    Yes, I listen to right-wing talk. I also listen to left-wing talk. You won’t want to hear this, but I don’t get as much knee-jerk reaction, dismissing out of hand from them, as I do from you, when I take the other side with them, meaning the liberal side, your side. I’m a former Democrat for 44 years and now an Independent. Neither side has a lock on being what I would consider to be “open-minded” or analytical about the kernels of truth that can sometimes be found. Nor practicality or being pragmatic.

    moonbat, you might feel differently about this if you lived, for example, outside of a border town, on the U.S. side and could not leave your ranch because of illegal immigrants trying to get across the border. If you left your ranch, upon your return you would find that you had been picked clean of anything that could be carried, everything you had worked your entire life for. Go and spend some time down there, then give an opinion. Nobody is talking about walling themselves in, per se. Legal immigration fine, illegal immigration, not fine. I have a Vietnamese national as a daughter-in-law. She came here LEGALLY. What part of illegal do you not understand?

  15. marijam  •  Aug 15, 2007 @6:13 pm

    One last thing before I go away. If you think this is all far-right wing, crackpot talk, you need to get a clue. If you think you can just dismiss it, you need to get a clue. If you do not, the Democratic party is going to lose another election. For the record, I am leaning towards voting for Hillary. For one thing, those Clinton years were the best of my life and I’d love to see Bill Clinton back in the White House in ANY capacity. A second chance for him, and I think Hillary would do just fine. I don’t think she’s anywhere near as corruptible as the Republican line-up.

  16. maha  •  Aug 15, 2007 @6:22 pm

    Maha, a patriot is, by definition, a nationalist. Explain to me how they can NOT be.

    They are extremely different. I’ve written about this extensively. So did George Orwell. He was an expert. You should read what he said very carefully, and take it to heart.

    I also have been hearing hysterical conspiracy theories all my life. I think what the Right is doing now is wringing out some old John Birch rumors about highways from India to China and changing the location to Mexico.

    If you want to be hysterical, please do it somewhere else.

    What part of illegal do you not understand?

    You didn’t read anything I said, did you? Good bye.

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