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Monday, August 20, 2007

Nostalgia Act

by digby

One of the things that has been bugging me about the Karl Rove farewell tour is the insistence by the punditocrisy that Bush was a real compassionate conservative who changed his spots once he came into office. The truth was that they ran him as a compassionate conservative in 2000 because the nasty, pinch faced image of the impeachment crazy GOP with its nose buried in the white house's boxers and briefs was vastly unpopular with everyone but the hard core Clinton haters. It was a slogan like the puerile "reformer with results" that Karen Hughes came up with to answer McCain's candidacy.

And the beauty of compassionate conservatism was that it was multipurpose. It not only separated Bush from the mouthbreathers among independents, it was a dogwhistle to the base at the same time. "Compassionate conservatism" had been coined by Marvin Olasky as a slogan defining the faithbased policies the Christian Right was pushing in the late 90's.

And there was a third bit of cleverness that hasn't been discussed much:

It's hard to remember now, but well before Rove became a household name, Thompson was among the folks considered to be the future of the GOP. Along with fellow 1990s Republican governors Jim Edgar (Illinois), John Engler (Michigan), George Voinovich (Ohio), George Pataki (New York), Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania), Christine Todd Whitman (New Jersey), William Weld (Massachusetts) and Marc Racicot (Montana), the Wisconsin governor was portrayed as the thinking man's Republican, mixing conservative ideals with the practical job of governing--a neat counterpoint to the snarling, obstructionist, impeachment-happy culture warriors in the party's congressional leadership. While the cohort's stellar reputations may have owed less to their executive brilliance than to the booming economy of the Clinton era, they collectively presented an image of a party voters might trust to educate their children, protect their drinking water, and otherwise engage in the bland, grown-up business of running a country.

It was no surprise, then, that when the 2000 election rolled around, Rove busily cast his candidate as yet another member of the earnest GOP governors' club.

That Governor's Club was a big deal during that period because they represented the sane, moderate side of the GOP that everyone believed could win that ever elusive swing voter. After the debacle of the 1998 election, the big money boyz knew they needed to put up somebody who wasn't a polarizing incubus like Gingrich. They were in trouble and they knew it.

Everyone's saying that Karl was unable to parlay the GOP majority into his dream of an enduring realignment, which is pretty obvious. But they are missing the fact that Rove's dream was so hubristic as to be delusional. Joshua Green's great article from this month's Atlantic shows how he was trying to bring about the kind of cataclysmic partisan shift that's only ever happened through major external cultural or economic shifts in the past, through sheer will and corrupt coalition building. What isn't so widely recognized, I think, was that he was also doing it at a time when his party's dominance had been on the wane for some time.

From conservative Christopher Caldwell's article "Why The GOP Is Doomed" from 1999:

The party faces a crisis of confidence that has many symptoms—repudiation in the most sophisticated parts of the country, widespread distrust of the Republican leadership, an inability to speak coherently on issues. All of them grow out of the same root cause: a vain search to rediscover the formula that made that unformulaic president Ronald Reagan so broadly appealing—even beloved. [...]

Since the 1960s Republican gains at the national level have been built on two trends. One is regional—the capture of more and more southern seats. The other is sociological—the tendency of suburbanites to vote Republican. The party’s 1994 majority came thanks to a gain of nineteen seats in the South. In 1996 Republicans picked up another six seats in the old Confederacy. But that only makes their repudiation in the rest of the country the more dramatic. The party has been all but obliterated in its historic bastion of New England, where it now holds just four of twenty-three congressional seats. The Democrats, in fact, dominate virtually the entire Northeast. The Republicans lost seats in 1996 all over the upper Midwest—Michigan, Wisconsin (two seats), Iowa, and Ohio (two seats). Fatally, they lost seats in all the states on the West Coast. Their justifiable optimism about the South aside, in 1996 it became clear that the Democratic Party was acquiring regional strongholds of equal or greater strength.

As Walter Dean Burnham, a political scientist at the University of Texas, has noted, the 1996 elections almost diametrically oppose those of 1896. (See accompanying maps.) Anyone who is today middle-aged or older was born in a country with a solidly Democratic South and a predominantly Republican Midwest and Northeast and probably will die in a country in which the Republicans hold the old Confederacy and the Democrats dominate from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. In effect, the two parties have spent the twentieth century swapping regional power bases.

One of the things that the TNR article I excerpted above points out is that Rove couldn't have been too happy with the outcome in 2000. The Republicans had had to run in 2000 as "compassionate" conservatives to set themselves apart from what everyone knew to be the hideous face of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh's GOP. And it wasn't enough. With all their soft-peddling and schmoozy sombrero swinging outreach they still had to steal it. The 2002 and 2004 elections were dramatically skewed by 9/11 and the chauvinistic orgasm that followed. They were anomalies. They managed to pull off a couple of tepid victories while the smoke still lingered, but things finally settled back to where they would have been in 9/11 hadn't happened.

Rove was hailed as a genius because he told everyone he was a genius. (And there was a certain genius in being able to get such a patently unacceptable candidate into high office.) But the truth is that he has been swimming against a strong tide for some time. We have all been thinking that the Bush II administration was the high water mark of the conservative era, but it was actually a decade earlier --- around 1994. Then we entered into a period of parity and now, finally, the momentum seems to be on the progressive side.

Miraculously, 9/11 only temporarily stalled that momentum politically but it didn't reverse it, largely because Karl Rove missed the opportunity to actually change the course of that slow moving realignment by having Bush reach out to the Democrats and the rest of the world and forge a new sort of consensus. Rove had Bush go the other way and stoke the base. It was a fatal error. And it is the ultimate proof of Rove's arrogant mediocrity. He was given a chance to possibly accomplish what up to then had only been hype and he made the wrong choice, most likely because he couldn't give up the idea that he could make it happen through his own strength of will. (We don't need no stinking consensus...)

The media, as usual, is way behind the curve on all this and didn't even catch on to conservative dominance until it was pretty much over. (As recently as three years ago I heard Chris Matthews smugly retorting to a guest, "the liberals run everything around here.") Now that the zeitgeist has definitively turned our way, they are convinced that the country is polarized and the Democrats need to move to the right on social issues. (Welcome to 1998.)

Karl Rove really only had one "insight" (if you can call it that): that some people would vote for you if they perceive you are a winner --- the bandwagon effect. He won elections through the clever manipulation of the media with lots of talk about "the math" and inevitability and his own mystique. When he was riding the 90's zeitgeist in red Texas, it worked. When he had to run nationally, not so much, but he still tried even in the face of his ignominious defeat in 2006.

The worst part of this is that Bush administration applied the same theory to running the country: the "you can believe me or you can believe your eyes" style of governance.You remember:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

I don't know if that was Karl or not, but it doesn't matter. That was Karl's view and Cheney's view and the whole GOP establishment's view. They thought they could outrun progress and outspin reality in every circumstance, but they couldn't.

I was listening to one of the blond GOP bombshells this morning on C-Span, Kelly Ann Fitzpatrick, lecturing some college Republicans on making the case for conservative ideas. I could anticipate everything she said before she said it. I was mouthing the words as if it were an old top 40 song that I would be happy never to hear again. It's predictable, tired and dull --- and it brings back bad memories.

Until they reinvent themselves into something new, their movement is moribund and has been that way for a lot longer than all of us realized. For the Republican party it's always morning in America, 1984. They are a nostalgia act and don't even know it.