Karl Rove's dream is dead.

The thinking behind the news.
Nov. 2 2005 5:18 PM

Karl Rove's Dying Dream

So much for the permanent Republican majority.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up to get all of Slate's free daily podcasts.

Karl Rove's dream is dying. This is happening for reasons that have nothing to do with Valerie Plame.

Rove's dream was to reshape American politics by creating a durable Republican majority. In the old days, Rove told anyone who would listen that his role model in this project was the legendary political boss Mark Hanna.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

Hanna was the brain behind William McKinley's political career in much the same way that Rove ("the architect") is the brain behind Bush's. McKinley was an affable, none-too-bright former congressman when Hanna helped elect him governor of Ohio. In 1896, Hanna raised an unprecedented amount of money and ran a sophisticated, hardball campaign that got McKinley to the White House. One could go on with the analogy: McKinley governed negligently in the interests of big business and went to war on flimsy evidence that Spain had blown up the USS Maine.

The key to McKinley's political success was the alliance Hanna forged between industrialists like himself, who provided the cash, and workers, who provided the votes. In Rove's alliance, the rich provide the cash, and religious conservatives provide the votes. Refuting the conventional wisdom that successful presidential candidates must lay claim to the political center, Bush has governed from the right and won re-election in 2004 with a "base-in," rather than a "center-out," strategy.

More by Jeff Danziger

When Bush was re-elected, everyone hailed Rove's strategy as a masterstroke. But would Rove's protégé have eked out victories in 2000 and 2004 absent special circumstances, lame opponents, and good luck? Less than a year into Bush's second term, the president's approval rating is down around 40 percent. Many things have gone wrong for Bush, but the underlying problem is his relationship to the constituency that elected him. Bush's debt to his big donors and to religious conservatives has boxed him in and pitted him against the national consensus on various issues. His extremism is undermining Rove's realignment.

The problem has become clear with Bush's difficulties in filling Sandra Day O'Connor's slot on the Supreme Court. The Harriet Miers nomination was an attempt to satisfy both the militant conservative base and the eternally moderate American electorate. With the Alito nomination, Bush has acknowledged that splitting this difference is impossible. Faced with a choice, he has chosen, once again, to dance with the ones who brought him. But by appointing a superconservative, Bush risks propelling his increasingly beleaguered administration even further toward the right-hand margin—a place where his party cannot win future national elections.

Bush aims to be the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. But he has never understood the genius of Reagan's method, which was to placate the religious right without giving in where it mattered. Reagan could proclaim his undying support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion without doing anything to endanger Roe v. Wade. (He was the one who nominated O'Connor, remember?) In the same way, Bill Clinton managed to keep liberal interest groups onboard without advancing their politically untenable wish list. But whether because he is less adroit or because he truly believes, Bush seems able to appease his base only by surrendering to its wishes. He has caved to conservatives on Terri Schiavo, on stem-cell research, on Social Security privatization, and on "intelligent design." Now, most important, he is caving by at least creating the appearance that he is trying to get enough votes on the Supreme Court to reverse Roe.

Bush's failure at base-pacification is not entirely his fault. The evangelicals, who were pragmatically willing to settle for half a loaf during the Reagan and Bush 41 years, now feel empowered, emboldened, and owed. James Dobson and Pat Robertson don't understand that they would do their cause the most good by keeping their mouths shut and not scaring everyone witless. Conservatives of all kinds are in a militant mood heightened by their success in muscling Bush on Miers. They do not realize how their militancy alienates not just the left, but the swingers in the center whom Republicans need to win.

Rove is actually the second Republican realigner to stumble in this way in recent years. After the 1994 election, Newt Gingrich had his own visions of political sugarplums. Gingrich's unsuccessful revolution was more libertarian and less moralistic. He thought the new Republican majority would coalesce around shrinking government (a theme Bush has soft-pedaled, preferring to undermine government through neglect and incompetence). Gingrich was also, frankly, a little nuts. But he failed because he made the same basic mistake that Rove did. Gingrich thought he'd won a mandate for radical change and enshrined a new governing majority. He forgot about the country's nonideological majority, which likes Medicare, Social Security, national parks, and student loans. Republicans have retained control of Congress since Gingrich's downfall, but only by reversing his austerity program and spending like a bunch of drunks.

Of course, the failure of Rove's realignment doesn't mean a new progressive era is at hand. After winning the White House back in 1896, Republicans held on to it until 1912, years after McKinley had succumbed to an assassin's bullet and Hanna had died of typhoid fever. But Republicans retained the presidency on a basis that Hanna never anticipated. Theodore Roosevelt, a man Hanna feared and tried unsuccessfully to keep off the GOP ticket in 1900, was sworn in when McKinley died in 1901. Roosevelt emerged as a reformer and a trustbuster, taking on the corporate interests that had underwritten his predecessor's career. The GOP retained power, but only by reversing the pro-business direction Hanna had set.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 6:24 PM The GOP Can’t Quit “Willie Horton” Even though they promise to do so, again and again.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 5:39 PM Whole Foods Desperately Wants Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.