Some doctrinaire conservatives are growing a bit cranky
over the ideological impurities of George W. Bush. California Republicans
rebelled when he promoted the candidacy of Richard Riordan -- Horrors! An electable
moderate! -- for governor. Free-market ideologues blanched when he supported
protections for the steel industry. "Steel tariffs are not just anti-market,"
grumped Sebastian Mallaby in The Washington Post. "They make no sense on their
Actually, they make sense and then some. Karl Rove -- the man behind the
curtain in all matters political at the Bush White House -- understands all too
well that busting up the Democratic coalition and building an enduring
conservative majority in the United States requires the administration to build
any number of alliances with its ideological opposites. While the Democrats
remain devoid of any strategic direction, Rove is busy developing a whole new
series of wedge issues to pick them apart.
Much was made during the 2000 campaign of Rove's appreciation of Mark Hanna,
the late-nineteenth-century industrialist who, as the political genius of the
McKinley operation, remade the Republican Party. Hanna not only persuaded the
CEOs of his day to invest mightily in the party, he also dashed the designs of
the William Jennings Bryan Democrats to restructure American politics along lines
of class. Running against McKinley in 1896, Bryan began with a base of support
among farmers and sought to bring industrial workers to his column as well.
Hanna's strategy was to align voters not by class but by sector. Industrialists
and urban workers both benefited from the tariffs that McKinley championed,
though Bryan's farmers most certainly did not. Even though those industrialists
paid their workers a miserably low wage, Hanna found common ground between these
two conflicting classes -- and there built a Republican coalition that lasted for
more than 30 years.
Follow the Bush White House over the past few months and it's apparent that
Rove grows more Hanna-like by the week. At bottom, the administration remains the
pluperfect expression of class politics: crafting a tax cut for the wealthy,
bailing out airlines but not their workers, pushing fast track. But Rove knows
that an administration devoted solely to the care and feeding of the rich is not
politically sustainable. So he's developed a series of discrete policies that
appeal to distinct groups in the electorate by sector.
The steel tariff is one of these. It runs counter to the administration's
overall free-trade policies, but it also stands to erode Democrats' support among
unionized industrial workers in such swing states as Ohio, West Virginia, and
Immigration policy is another of Rove's sectoral opportunities. It's also a
necessity: Rove has long been convinced -- rightly -- that absent a successful
outreach strategy to the fast-growing Latino electorate, Republicans are doomed.
Since the opening days of the administration, Rove has concentrated particularly
on liberalizing immigration policy with Mexico -- and not even the clamor for
greater border security since September 11 has deterred him from his mission. As
with the steel tariff, he's been dealing with a business-labor coalition:
businesses in search of more immigrant workers, unions bent on organizing them.
As a result not just of September 11 but also the recession, the domestic
pressure to increase immigration has waned, but the Republicans are still
negotiating with unions and other immigrant advocates for more modest
liberalizations. Consequently, Congress is now poised to extend an amnesty
covering many thousands of undocumented immigrants, and to make legal immigrant
students eligible for Pell Grants.
What Rove is doing is coming up with a new generation of wedge issues. Bill
Clinton took all the old GOP favorites -- crime and welfare in particular -- off the
table. Rove is responding by finding new ways to pick apart the Democratic
base -- and with party strength so evenly divided, it doesn't take much to tip the
balance one way or the other.
Rove's strategic initiatives stand in sharp contrast to the Democrats' torpor.
While Rove has shown himself willing and able to deviate from core GOP policy to
cut into the Democratic base, the Democrats have been unable even to formulate a
core policy, let alone deviate from it. Uncertain whether to stand for fiscal
discipline or a real prescription-drug benefit, divided over how and whether to
question the president on our expanding and amorphous war, paralyzed by the tax
cut that all too many of them voted for, they call to mind Lincoln's description
of a Union general in the aftermath of a battlefield defeat. The general, Lincoln
said, was wandering around "confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head."
That's our Democrats. Alas, that's not Karl Rove.