Election 2008′s Real Loser Will Be Karl Rove And Rovian Politics
A common thread evident in talking to and reading polls about independent voters and many Americans is this: they are sick of the kind of political base mobilization politics symbolized by former Bush political maven Karl Rove.
Rove is now a respected political consultant and highly-engaging Fox News talking head. And on occasions where YouTubes of him hit the Internet showing him delivering a speech or in a TV sound bite, you can tell why he has been hugely-successful at getting out (often negative) messages quickly and firmly-embedding it in the listener’s mind.
But in Election 2008 he will be the real loser — no matter which candidate wins or loses.
The McCain campaign’s mistake came in the transition to the general election, when they became surrounded by Republican operatives who had learned their trade from Rove. The candidate was lurched from center to right and back, with messaging more tactical than strategic, a tone more sarcastic than substantive.
Indeed, the McCain campaign’s sarcastic tone was jarring. The 2000 McCain had been tough-talking, but there was a lot of “there there” for those who felt uneasy belonging to either party.
This time, in his 2008 incarnation, McCain has sounded more like a radio talk show host than a substantive candidate.
In 2000, those who supported McCain long felt that no matter what his Republican and Democratic critics claimed, McCain meant McContent. In 2008, it became clear he morphed into McSnark — leaving the high(er) road and greater issue-specific content to Barack Obama, coming across as the candidate more focused on bigger issues at a time when many Americans were more worried than ever over big issues.
And when the McCain campaign tried to deploy the Rovian techniques he had deplored in years past, they not only failed to stick, they provoked a backlash among the Independent voters who had long been his core constituency.
In effect, John McCain has been defeated by Karl Rove twice—because he’s been tarred by the Bush brush and even if McCain pulls off a narrow upset win, his ability to unite the country will be damaged from day one.
You can see the backlash in poll after poll that shows that many voters believe McCain has been running the more negative campaign at a time when people are clamoring for answers about solutions. Many independent voters who supported McCain in 2000 — and I am one of them — have watched in utter dismay as McCain voluntarily shed his strongest appeal to independent voters: his image as someone who wasn’t quite adored by either party because he didn’t quite toe either party line and refused to become prisoner to partisan political consultants’ talking — and often demonizing — points.
In 2000 he was the anti-Bush, and lost.
In 2008 he didn’t just make peace with his enemies who defeated him, but he let them run his show. And, if you recall, early on in his campaign it became known that although Rove wasn’t an official adviser to McCain, he was going to be an unofficial adviser — and McCain’s campaign was peppered with Rove’s well-schooled proteges.
The Rovian style of politics derived from the late Lee Atwater (who at the end of his life expressed regret over some of the things he had done) has dominated American politics over the past two decades. And it is available any day to anyone who wants to listen to it in operation. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh, a hugely talented broadcaster or read his lively website. Or if you want to find out the latest spin virtually word-for-word, just listen to Sean Hannity, who is Rush Limbaugh without the technical broadcasting genius — or wit.
Rovian politics has come to symbolize the politics of hot buttons — which means arousing passions so partisans flock to the polls because they believe if they fail to vote the republic will fall apart due to a caricature skillfully implanted in their minds of the opposing candidate. The problem over the past 8 years: these electioneering tactics have not proven to lead to skillful governance, not led to smart choices in building expanding coalitions for the White House, and failed to create a safety net of support that could be counted on when polls go south.
He who governs by the base, for the base and of the base has problems if the base shrinks, if things go awry — and if the larger polity gets angry.
The bottom line is that some Americans want to return to the not-so-long-ago but recently dissed time when partisans of both parties could aggressively disagree on politics but not demonize each other as individuals or as a group because of differing perspectives. That requires a different approach to electioneering and coalition-building. (See my earlier post on why so many former McCain supporters and Republicans are jumping ship from the McCain campaign).
Avlon nails it all this and more in his Politico piece so here are some extensive quotes from it and some comments:
We don’t know yet who will win or by what margin, but we know one thing for certain: this election represents the repudiation of Karl Rove and his play-to-the-base strategy.
There was always something dicey about stoking the fires of hyper-partisanship as a campaign and governing strategy, treating 51-49 victories as ideological mandates instead of an obligation to form broader and more durable coalitions.
Now we have the data to judge the results: a president who tried to unite his party at the expense of uniting the nation and failed to do both, repudiated by both candidates running to succeed him. Even John McCain admits to visitors at his Web site homepage, “the last eight years haven’t worked very well, have they?”
It’s an unprecedented condemnation of the president’s politics as well as the effectiveness of his governance.
If Obama wins this election, especially by a large margin, there is going to be a lot of talk about how the Obama team has rewritten the rules of modern politics. But the real question may be whether the rules were wrong all along.
Bush ran and governed as if he was President of the base, by the base, and of the base. And the American people are far more than just the Republican party’s base. If Obama does win, pundits will point to McCain’s Sarah Palin pick, the economy and various other factors. But an underlying factor is that under the Rove approach the priority has been uniting the party to get just enough votes to win. That marginalizes a huge chunk of America and can work providing there’s no widespread voter anger that leads to the creation of an angry counter-coalition.
Avlon looks at Bush’s two victories and notes: “The narrow margins of these victories are signs of strategic weakness, not strength.” He points to how Bill Clinton, even with his impeachment, left office with good poll numbers. Why? He points out: because of Clinton’s CENTRIST policies.
Avlon also explores something a lot of pundits have missed: primary candidates that tried to use a Rovian approach largely flopped this year:
In this campaign, the two candidates who tried to ape Rove’s strategy most closely—Mitt Romney on the right and John Edwards on the left—fashioned hasty political facelifts, pandered to the base, spent enormous amounts of money and failed. Even in the essentially rigged system of closed partisan primaries, the play-to-the-base method wasn’t working. The American people wanted something less cynical and divisive.
Barack Obama and John McCain both ran in opposition to the polarizing establishment of their two parties, preaching the need to reach across the red-state and blue-state divide. They called upon Republicans, Democrats and Independents to join their cause to restore a new solutions-oriented civility to our politics.
When I was writing from Madrid for The Christian Science Monitor from 1975-1978, Spaniards used to quote a saying: “Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho.” Which basically means there’s a lot of distance between words and deeds.
McCain detested the politics of personal destruction that he personally experienced at the hands of Rove-operatives in South Carolina’s primary in 2000. And he began his campaign vowing to keep it on the high road. But when it came to crunch time, he opted to decide to win at all costs — so he invited some of the same folks who decimated him in 2000 to work for him to defeat Obama.
Avlon notes that “Obama took aim at Rove’s red-state/blue-state tactics early on, making them a staple his stump speech appeal to voters before the Iowa caucus..” and kept the need to end this style of politics as part of his speech:
In some ways, the key to Obama’s campaign has been about inspiring an inclusive crusade to overturn Rove’s play-to-the-base politics, and he may be on the road to a victory with margins unseen by President Bush or the Democratic Party since Lyndon Johnson as a result.
But there is a danger for the Democrats.
As several writers on TMV have noted, and Avlon warns, if Obama wins big the Democrats could interpret this as a huge ideological victory — forgetting the number of centrist independents, former McCain supporters, Reagan Democrats and Goldwater and Reagan-descended conservatives who opted to either vote against McCain and for Obama or for third-party candidates.
And if the Republicans go into the wilderness, count the hours until some social conservative commentator comes up with the self-serving assessment that John McCain failed because he was not conservative enough. That is precisely the wrong lesson to learn from this era and this election.
The lesson is that narrow hyper-partisan appeals are not enough to govern effectively or representatively in the 21st Century. Ignoring the center is a sure path to political isolation. And dividing the American people in order to conquer them in campaigns is morally and practically bankrupt. Karl Rove’s play-to-the-base strategy has been exposed as unethical and unwise.
Indeed: so much has changed in the 21st century. Newspapers are being downsized, closing or going totally web as they lose classified advertising to Craig’s List, eBay and other web transactions. Many Americans now go to websites and weblogs for campaign news. Text messaging and emailing are the orders of the day. Broadcasting is outmoded and replaced by narrow-casting.
And unless the “Bradley effect” shows up to make liars of most polls, Obama could win as McCain is perhaps done in by what may become known as the ultra-partisan “Rove-Kristol Effect.”
A FINAL NOTE:
One of the most notable things this campaign season has been how 99.99 percent of the emails from McCain supporters to yours truly have been negative emails about Obama or news stories that put Obama in a negative light. I’ve gotten almost no emails that present positive aspects about McCain or about his policies, although the RNC has sent some substantive ones from time to time. Meanwhile, most emails from Obama supporters are about Obama’s specific policies, which then take potshots at McCain’s.
There seems to be a real political cultural disconnect — one that Avlon’s piece underscores.
As it moves into the 21st century with a new generation of Americans who aren’t infected by the polarization mind-set of the Baby Boomers who seem to want to re-fight the polarization battles of the 60s until their dying days, the GOP — win or lose — needs to accentuate and articulate policy positives, unless it wants to become a clone of talk radio.
A party that’s like talk radio, win-or lose, faces an authentic danger. The party can suffer the same fate as a talk radio show:
It can be quickly turned-off by many in its audience if they feel they’ve heard enough of the same angry rant against caricatured opponents over and over.
Even if its candidate narrowly wins the white House.
UPDATE: Maureen Dowd’s latest column looks at the issue of McCain 2000′s displacement by McCain 2008 with the help of Rove proteges. Here are some key sections:
Last summer, tapped out and unable to afford a paid staff of political professionals, he talked freely, telling reporters he would have a White House that would be the polar opposite of the secretive and dismissive Bush-Cheney operation. He imagined weekly press conferences and talked of subjecting himself to a version of British question time in Congress. While acknowledging he was a tech tyro, he promised to try “a Google,” as he called searching the Web, to put government spending online so citizens could bird-dog it.
He even went so far as to spin a dream of a West Wing in which he would cut back on his Secret Service so he wouldn’t feel so constrained.
In the end, “The Bullet,” or “Sarge,” as McCain calls his replacement campaign manager Steve Schmidt, was the one who did the shackling, turning the vibrant and respected McCain into a shell of his former self.
Schmidt abruptly cut off the oxygen supply to McCain’s brain. No more of the oldest established, permanent floating crap game of press confabs. No more audiences that weren’t vetted for friendliness. No more of McCain’s trademark insouciant mocking the process even as he participated in it.
Why did he allow his campaign to become a host body for a Bush virus looking for someplace to infect? After working so hard to erase the image of what Senate aides called “the Bush hug,” McCain inexplicably hugged Bushies, surrounding himself with mercenaries trained in the same Rovian tactics that tore up his family — and tore apart his campaign — in 2000.
Why did a politician who once knew how to play the game so well, who was once so beloved by people of very different political stripes, allow his campaign to get whiny, angry, vengeful and bitter?
Significance: If McCain does pull off an upset (upsetting the conventional old and much of the new media wisdom and the bulk of polls) he will have a very rocky term since he allowed himself to be turned into a polarizing figure.