Why Karl Rove's strategy still works
Mark Halperin | The New York Times | October 3, 2006
Two years of controversy over the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, and the perils of high gasoline prices and low poll numbers, have led many Americans to believe that the Republican Party's strategy of fighting from the base has worn out its welcome.
Therefore, this view holds, a campaign that appeals to moderates, one waged from the center, is the only way for the party to maintain control of the Congress.
Interesting theory, but it probably won't work. If the Republicans want to keep their majorities in the midterm elections, their best chance is to stick with the old, base-driven electoral strategy followed by President George W. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove.
Why? In the eyes of the Bush team, the United States is a polarized country, where there are fundamental divisions worth fighting over. A president - and a party - should not worry about slender margins of victory or legislative control. The goal is to accumulate just enough power to use the energies and passions of the base to effect ideological change in America's laws and institutions, even if - sometimes especially if - those changes might be at odds with majority public opinion.
For the Republicans, this brand of politics works because polls consistently indicate that there are more staunchly conservative Americans than liberal ones. Republican politicians, therefore, have the advantage of being able to proudly announce what they really think. They can go on offense.
It's important to note that this strategy depends on something else: the inability of Democrats to play by the same rules, to go on offense.
If Democrats in Congress took a secret ballot, it is safe to say there would be overwhelming support for a variety of positions that, in theory, could rally the party's base: a timely withdrawal of American troops from Iraq; a tax increase for the wealthy; universal health care, and increased rights for homosexuals. These are all positions in line with the activist wing of their party.
And yet if the Democrats actually articulated what was in their hearts, they would be marching into a buzz saw of negative political commercials and White House-led attacks. But their chosen alternative - in which they swallow their true beliefs on important national issues - demoralizes their own base.
Such equivocation is the kind of themeless pudding that does not match up well with the conviction of the White House message and is uninspiring to both the Democrats' base and the center.
Despite conservative disaffection with the White House over the past year on issues like spending (and even, in some cases, on Iraq), the latest polls show the Republican base is coming home - and just in time for the midterm election. Base support is headed toward 90 percent, just about where it was before the 2002 and 2004 elections.
The speeches that Bush gave about national security leading up to the fifth anniversary of 9/11 re-engaged the base and raised his overall approval rating to around 40 percent. He also has shifted the debate back to his favored playing field: national security.
Although some Democrats are energized by the aggressive posture struck last week by Bill and Hillary Clinton on national security, the couple's visibility seems to be energizing the Republican base as well, perhaps more so.
As in 2002 and 2004, the Democrats have been baited into a heated discussion on terrorism and Iraq, blocking out debates that would be more favorable to their cause, like Social Security, the economy and gas prices. The Clintons have whipped up Democrats into a frenzy to fight back, but on Capitol Hill and on television they are largely fighting back on Republican terrain.
This is exactly what happened in the last two elections: Bush and Rove fired up the base on national security, taxes and social issues and found a way to win a majority of the electorate, even as they lost the allegiance of a majority of Americans overall.
Bush's opponents may be imprudently lulled by the current storyline and broad national polls, both of which miss the power and consequence of a Republican base that may have one more victory to give.
Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, is the co-author of "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008."