Last fall, after President Bush nominated his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, the conservative blog Redstate.com explained the vehement opposition to the choice. It was not so much doubts about Mierss conservatism, but the very fact that she could win confirmation without a fight: [The White House] does not understand how badly some of us want the final showdown with the Dems.
The final showdown is a concept that fits awkwardly into the American democratic tradition. Democracy is by its nature a process of continual refinement and accommodation of new ideas, in which no answers are quite final, no structure of power permanent. While liberal ideas had their decades of ascendance, that was not the result of a conscious plan to battle opposing views to the death. And the happy accident that ideology, political party, and economic interest did not follow the same lines kept things always in flux. While it is always nave to think that the good old days were free from political lies and sabotage, there was generally an assumption that everyone would wake up the next morning and start the fight anew, perhaps with the advantage shifted or lines changed. The Armageddon strain in American politics is a new one.
It has taken a while for journalists, Democrats, and even many rank-and-file Republicans to understand that the DeLay-Rove Republicans were playing a very different game. These guys are playing for keeps, a recent fundraising letter signed by James Carville warned me. The tactics that Rove calls game-changers were intended not just to win an election or two, but to use those victories to rig the rules forever.
The quest for permanent power has finally been chronicled in these two books, one by a pair of Los Angeles Times journalists and the other by the veteran Thomas B. Edsall, formerly of The Washington Post. The books differ dramatically in style and emphasis, and should be read together. Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten concentrate on Republican and White House tactics in a fairly straightforward work of journalism, while Edsalls book is more expansive and daring, traversing economic and demographic trends, history, culture, ideology and political institutions, armed with a bucket full of statistics, to map the external conditions that make those tactics possible.
All three authors are likely nervous that their books will appear just weeks before the 2006 election, and it could be that in November, the argument that the GOP was seeking to establish permanent power will seem a bit premature. Indeed, Edsall falters at the very end and admits that the current political setup is in disequilibrium; if it were a corporation it would be ripe for takeover, although he believes that only a third-party candidate or a true insurgent within one of the major parties could capitalize on this instability. In fact, both books set out to prove that the Republican structure of power is built to survive election defeats, and that the Democratic weakness can persist despite victories, and for the most part, they are persuasive.
The great conservative narrative that drives this quest for powerthe theory of history shared by Karl Rove, George Bush, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, and all their alliesis the myth of a loss of nerve. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and even Newt Gingrich, they believe, all pulled back before that final showdown. They were held back by civility, by a tendency to think of Democrats as partners in government rather than as The Enemy, by fear of bad poll results, by fear of the press, by a sense of the Things That Just Arent Done, or by shame. As Edsall points out, the ability to act without shame is a powerful political weapon. The Republican drive for permanent power as told in these books is mostly a story of disabling all those brakes, to ensure that hesitationssuch as George H.W. Bushs agreement to a tax-raising bipartisan budget summit in 1990can never occur again.
George W. Bush, cowboy/wildcatter wannabe, was uniquely suited to the never-flinch plan. A particular achievement of One Party Country is to put the president back at the center of the story of the rise of the right.
There have been two phases in the interpretation of the Bush era. The first, covering most of the first term, put the focus on Bush himself, whether his dissolute youth and dishonest middle age, or, for supporters, his post-September 11 ability to project moral clarity. Since the reelection, Bush has been seen more as a figurehead placed at the top of a pyramid of conservative power stronger than the individual.
Thus, liberals finally began after 2004 to seek to understand the institutions of the right, while conservatives began to persuade themselves that they had simply placed the wrong figurehead on top of a sound structurequite literally expressed in the title of Bruce Bartletts recent book, Impostor.
The pyramid could never have been built without Bush and his father, Hamburger and Wallsten show. More than Goldwater or Reagan, the Bush family undertook the most deliberate plan to wed the economic privilege of their Republican Party to the growing power of social conservatism. Bushs dispatching of three sons to the three big states where Republican conservatism was poised to flourishFlorida, Texas, and Colorado (the last for the forgotten son, Neil, in whom the greatest hopes were once placed, but whose attempts to get rich off his name crossed a line that his brothers somehow managed to avoid)now seems as canny a move as some 17th-century monarch marrying his daughters off to various German princes. It was the presidents Bush who brought into the circle of Republican operatives the two men, Rove and Lee Atwater, to whom most of the tactics of permanent power can be traced.
Most significantly, the Bushes maneuvered the party through a careful, strategic use of race for political purposes, beginning with the elders break with his familys genteel Republican tradition to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after some ostentatious soul-searchinga process that resembled his sons elaborate charade of considering all sides of the debate on stem-cell research before following the dictates of the religious right.
Later, though, the first Bush empowered Atwater to cut the deals with African-American politicians that redistricted the South into a few Democratic-packed districts that sent blacks to Congress and a much larger number of marginally Republican districts that elected far-right whites. And then George W. Bush understood that racial voting patterns were so well established that it was time to shift gears, to reach out to African Americans and Hispanic voters. It was probably a matter of cynically simple math: When Republicans are winning 80 percent of the white vote in parts of the South, is it easier to try to boost that to 85 percent, or to boost the share of the black vote from 10 percent to 15 percent by reaching the culturally very conservative older African Americans?
So whereas Jeb Bushs answer to the question, What would you do for black people?Probably nothingcost him his first attempt to win the governorship of Florida in 1994, his brother devised compassionate conservatism and embraced school choice in order to reach a greater number of African-Americans, and developed what his campaign called the I love you plan to reach Hispanics. George W. Bush sharply rebuked California Governor Pete Wilson over his early-1990s anti-immigrant initiatives.
I bring this up at some length because its the one point of difference between the two books. At the core of Edsalls is the dynamic that he explored in the 1992 book, Chain Reaction, which he wrote with his wife Mary D. Edsall: the disaffection of the white male voter. Shifting gender roles and the claims of racial equality, together with the anxiety created by the meltdown of the manufacturing economy, broke the middle-class base of the Democratic Party. The rest is just tactics to capitalize on this big trend. Edsall views the politics of race in terms essentially unchanged from the early 1990s, arguing that hostility to big government is largely a code for benefit programs that white voters believe are directed largely to minorities.
While race will always be a sharp dividing line in American politics, and one dismisses its influence at great risk, we have to acknowledge that something about the tactics changed: Why did Bush choose to dodge the question on affirmative action when it came to the Supreme Court, rather than exploit the issue? Why in the No Child Left Behind Act did he do something that no Democrat quite dared, which was to target funds to the worstthat is, minorityschools? While perhaps as cynical as the old racial tactics represented by the Southern Strategy, it was nonetheless a recognition that that strategy had reached its limits.
When it came to the realities of race and poverty, Bush may have known better than to say probably nothing when asked what he would do. But with tax cuts and deregulation his only domestic priority, nothing is what he did for black America, as revealed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Black approval of Bush reached a statistically improbable two percent last fall. On immigration, while Bush tried to occupy a reasonable centrist position, the conservative structure he sat atop was built on politics more like Pete Wilsons, and by unleashing that beast, Bush dealt his party a setback with Hispanics as well. I love you only goes so far.
Since these new tactics havent worked, the post-Bush Republican Party will face a choice between continuing the superficial conciliation on race and immigration (a position represented by Sen. McCain) or to move back to the traditional strategy of provoking white resentment. I wish Edsall had written more about the changing tactics, and that Hamburger and Wallsten had said more about the failure of those tactics.
Stalk the vote
These three journalists arent in the What is to be done? business, so readers have to supply their own answers. The tactics described in these books, particularly One Party Nation, seem to fall into four categories that call for different kinds of responses:
First, there are tactics that Democrats must master for themselves, immediately, and if they dont, one might suspect that there is some secret conspiracy to destroy the party from within. Chief among these is the modern art of targeting voters for mobilization efforts. The Democratic voter-mobilization formula is decades-old and dirt-simple: find precincts that generally vote 65 percent Democratic, and get everyone to the polls. Top it off with union and African-American voter-turnout efforts, and the Democratic machine usually had an edge over Republicans. But, as both Edsall and Hamburger/Wallsten reveal, starting in 2001, Republicans began to approach turnout in a totally different way, looking for likely Republican voters wherever they live. By using the most sophisticated techniques of consumer marketing, they knew the magazines their potential voters read, the cable stations they watched, and other demographic characteristics, and then they looked for voters who looked like Republican voters. As a result, while Democratic turnout efforts in Ohio in 2004 concentrated on massive turnout in the African-American neighborhoods of Cleveland and the other urban cores, ignoring the suburbs and rural areas of the state, Republicans had information on every voter, and could find that single Bush sympathizer living on a block papered with Kerry-Edwards signs.
Similarly, Republicans have a much more subtle understanding of public opinion and the forces that activate it. Liberals tend to take a highly literal approach. We define a problemfor example, peoples anger at HMOsthen come up with a policy that might directly address the problem, give it a name like Patients Bill of Rights, then send out a pollster. We find out that 70 percent of people dont like their health insurance, and 65 percent favor a Patients Bill of Rights. Boom, add it to the list. Republicans understand that broad support for a policy is irrelevant; what matters is whether support or opposition can mobilize voters. An unpopular position that intensely motivates a small constituency is far more valuable than generalized support for something that doesnt. Democrats must master the art of constructing majorities out of smaller, activated constituencies, brought together in coalition.
Edsall describes well the relationship between the Republican Party and the interest groups that make up its awkward coalition. A conservative activist like Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation conceives of an ideal world in which his conservatism and the Republican Party are one and the same. In contrast, Edsall writes, the liberal interest groups were created when liberals and Democrats were in power, and its leaders all see themselves and their goals as separate and distinct from those of the Democratic Party. The Democrats are half a party, with their strongest ideological allies always keeping one foot out of it. This is a story worthy of a book of its own, but something in this relationship must change.
The second category of Republican tactics of permanent power are those that must be banished from our public life forever. Hamburger and Wallsten discuss in great detail the misuse of executive branch power for raw political purposes. Karl Rove apparently dropped by unannounced to meetings of managers at the Fish and Wildlife Service and sent polling data to political appointees in such agencies to ensure that routine decisions were made according to the White Houses political priorities. Workshops on how to apply for funds for abstinence education were located in certain electorally key states in order to mobilize religious groups. There are dozens of similar examples.
The reason its so important that the other party gain the subpoena power conferred by control of one house of Congress this fall is to be able to understand and curb such abuses of power. The purpose is not revenge, or impeachment. Its so that the next time a White House political operativeof either partyputs undue pressure on a line manager in the government, that manager can say, Im sorry, maam, but I just cant do that. Remember the congressional hearings the last time? These are things that in the past Just Werent Done, and that sense of limits imposed not by law but by custom and fear of shamea deeply conservative principle, incidentallymust be restored.
In a third category are tactics and situations that will be very difficult for Democrats to emulate, and equally difficult to eliminate. The most important of these, well described in both books, is what Edsall calls the merger between the Republican Party and business. This is not just a matter of campaign contributions; thats a very small part of it. There is, for example, the practice of getting businesses to hire Republican operatives and politicians, allowing Rove to exult, We can now go to students at Harvard and say, There is now a secure retirement plan for Republican operatives.
And above all, there is the massive investment in voter education and turnout through businesses, efforts led by the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). Just to take one of these, BIPAC had 80 organizers in 14 key states, and in Iowa, which Bush won by 13,000 votes, the business group registered 16,000 voters.
Conservative as they were, most businesses had avoided partisan politics well into the 1990s. Most thought it was against the law to talk to employees about who to vote for. And they probably didnt think that their workers would vote the right way. But, Hamburger and Wallsten write, workers understood that manufacturing jobs were evaporating. They no longer dared dismiss out of hand arguments that what was good for their employers was also good for them. This is a key corrective to the idea that working people vote Republican because they put social values above their economic interest. In many cases, they see their economic interest as bound up in their employers interest; they think of themselves as employees rather than workers. It is ironic that this occurs at a time when they are far less likely to be bound to one employer (and one union) for life. But the very insecuritythe sense that employers are vulnerable too, that a Caterpillar or GM could go bankruptdrives a panicked sense of loyalty that overrides any sense of class solidarity.
The challenge for liberals in this is profound, and its not just a matter of matching their voter drives or increasing organized labors percentage of the workforce from 11 percent to 13 percent. It may require building some new alliances with business, perhaps on health care, so that both employers and workers can see that their interests are not with the short-term, high-inequality, tax-cut agenda of the Republicans but with a long-term, balanced vision of a productive economy and a new social contract.
Finally, there are tactics described in these books that require no response because they have backfired. One Party Country is neatly structured to conclude with two chapters on the system of permanent power put to the test. The first of the two chapters uses Social Security as an example of the tactics at work, and as promised, it is a case study in all the tactics, from the elevation of politics over policy, strong centralized control of the plan from the White House, bullying of business, etc. But it didnt work. The authors say that it faded after attention shifted to Hurricane Katrina, but really it was dead long before that.
One of the lessons should be that sometimes policyeven its detailsmatters. The White House never had a real plan for Social Security privatization, jumped around from one sketchy idea to another, and denied aspects of the plan if they seemed unpopular. The plan never got off the ground, and the political visionthat it would solidify younger people around a vision of an ownership society in which they would make it on their own rather than depending on governmentwas shattered. The limits of the Bush-Rove strategy were revealed.
In a wonderful chapter near the end of his book, Edsall describes the core Republican demographic: affluent white men who are extremely tolerant of risk. The 30 percent of men who embrace risk are much more politically conservative than other men or most women, and according to a health study cited by Edsall, hold very different attitudes, characterized by trust in institutions and authorities and by anti-egalitarianism. These extreme risk-takers also tend to have the resources to protect themselves from the consequences of risk. Thus Republican policies embrace the high-risk economy, while Democrats build their platform around the security embodied in the words Social Security. But Republican tactics are themselves a risk-takers move. So many of the tactics described in these books, particular the deliberate polarization of the electorate, skirt the edge of disaster at every turn. Meanwhile, Democrats are paralyzed because their very approach to politics is based on caution, and protecting what little power they have. These two books attempt to make the case that the Republican right, like those affluent men, like George W. Bush himself, are so protected, so affluent, so secure, that they can afford to roll the dice, and if they lose an election or two, they wont fall far.