Book Reviews

Failure to Blossom

Why did so many smart writers believe that Karl Rove's vision would succeedand that Democrats had to mimic it?

By Ronald Brownstein

Tagged ElectionsKarl Rovepolitics

One Party Country By Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten • Wiley • 2006 • 272
pages • $15.95
The Way to Win By Mark Halperin and John Harris • Random House • 2006 • 480
pages • $26.95
What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank • Holt • 2005 • 336
pages • $16 (Paperback)
Whistling Past Dixie By Thomas Schaller • Simon & Schuster • 2006 • 352
pages • $15 (Paperback)
Building Red America By Thomas B. Edsall • Basic Books • 2006 • 336
pages • $16.95

Other political strategists may have harbored equally Napoleonic ambitions, but few expressed them as clearly, or as often, as Karl Rove. As journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in their 2006 book One Party Country, “Rove was the architect of a breathtakingly ambitious plan to use the embryonic Bush presidency to build an enduring Republican majority.” At the time Hamburger and Wallsten wrote, not only many political journalists but many Democratic activists and strategists believed Rove was within sight of that goal–a conviction captured by the title the two Los Angeles Times reporters chose for their book; it wasn’t a Democratic “One Party Country” that they foresaw.

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush’s reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal “wedge issues” that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove’s approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party’s base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal. “Liberals who regard Bush’s political strategist as Satan scan the Democratic Party and ask plaintively, ‘Where is our Karl Rove?’” write journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris in their 2006 book, The Way to Win.

In fact, by the time most of these books were published, the Republican “fortress” (as Hamburger and Wallsten called it) looked more like a crumbling sand castle. Bush’s reelection proved the high point of Rove’s vision, and even that was a rather modest peak: Bush’s margin of victory, as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Through Bush’s disastrous second term, the GOP’s position deteriorated at an astonishing speed. By the time Bush left office, with Democrats assuming control of government and about two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his performance, his party was in its weakest position since before Ronald Reagan’s election. Rather than constructing a permanent Republican majority, Rove and Bush provided Democrats an opportunity to build a lasting majority of their own that none of these books saw coming.

There’s no particular shame in that; whiffs are more common than hits in the political prediction business. I’m sure I would find plenty of reasons to groan if I excavated a collection of my articles from 2004 and 2005. (I’m not encouraging anyone to do so.) The authors of the books under review are smart people and skilled analysts, and they got a lot of things right. But their obsession with Rove and the conservative movement’s institution-building mostly blinded them to the flaws in the Right’s blueprint. Rove was a brilliant tactician in the service of a fundamentally flawed strategy. Almost uniformly these books focused so much on the former that they ignored the latter. Even more important, this intense concentration diverted the authors’ attention from the waves of demographic and economic change that were eroding the Republicans’ position and strengthening the Democrats’. In that respect, these writers were hardly alone. Ten or even five years ago, few Democrats envisioned that their party would attract the coalition of voters that actually elected Barack Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities last year. Even now, many Democrats still don’t acknowledge how much their modern coalition differs from their historic image of the party. The story of the Democratic revival, the story that these books missed in their fascination with Rove and the conservative movement, is a tale of what might be called the accidental coalition.

These “Republicans ascendant” books of the middle Bush years provided much good reporting and thinking on conservative strategy and governance. Hamburger and Wallsten (colleagues in my former job at the Los Angeles Times) burrow deeply into the Bush Administration’s political tactics, from the breakthrough use of “micro-targeting” to identify potential Republican voters to the systematic efforts to bind the business community more closely to the Republican Party. Frank is perceptive, funny, and more sweetly elegiac than I remember from first reading in describing how conservatives used cultural issues to chip away at working-class white voters. Harris and Halperin are exhaustive, if overly glib, in documenting the recesses of Rove’s thinking. (Their book induces a kind of whiplash, as it combines a roughly 300-page mash note to Rove with some abrupt bet-hedging in the final chapter as Bush, politically speaking, fell through the floorboards.)

Schaller, meanwhile, gives spot-on analysis of the South’s preponderant influence in the modern GOP coalition, the risks that influence created for Republicans among more secular voters, and the emerging opportunities for Democrats in the Southwest. Waldman’s book, the least interesting of those under review, is more a polemic than a work of history or analysis, but it captures the Left’s sense of urgency and embattlement in the middle Bush years.

Edsall, who has been writing about the structure of American politics for a quarter-century, offers by far the most sophisticated analytical framework for the parties’ changing fortunes. He persuasively links the GOP ascent from the late 1960s through Bush’s first term to the sexual revolution that upended traditional notions of morality and a business revolution that exposed American workers to greater economic risk. The former strengthened Republicans by igniting a backlash from religious conservatives, while the latter weakened Democrats by eroding their capacity to deliver economic security for their working-class supporters. Edsall’s book is sometimes repetitive, and his prose is often pedestrian, but among these works, only Schaller even approaches his analysis of demography, voting trends, and interest groups.

Given all their strengths and insights, why did these books fail to see the cracks in the Republican edifice? For one thing, to varying degrees each overstated the importance of Republican electoral tactics and (Edsall mostly excepted) downplay the political risks in the consciously polarizing strategy that Rove and the GOP pursued. Second, and again to varying degrees, the authors fail to imagine that Democrats could revive with a different electoral coalition than the one they relied on during their glory days from 1932 through 1968.

For all of these authors, the brass-knuckled electoral tactics utilized by Rove and conservative leaders are a consistent source of fascination. That focus pointed the authors toward the conclusion that Democrats were in decline because they refused to fight as ruthlessly as the Republicans. Waldman argues that Democrats could only recover if they fight as unencumbered by conscience as he imagined Republicans like Rove to be. He urges Democrats to attack Republicans’ patriotism and laments that John Kerry never threatened to literally deck George W. Bush. Progressives ought to see politics “not as a contest or a game but as an unending war, one in which the enemy must be utterly vanquished,” he insists.

Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland—Baltimore County, offers a similar demand for greater confrontation, suggesting that Democrats try to turn the Republican dominance of the South against them by attacking Dixie as the root of “a variety of national pathologies.” In a third call for more confrontational tactics, Frank urges Democrats to counter the cultural populism Republicans used to attract working-class voters with a more biting economic populism aimed at business and the wealthy. “The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to [these] cultural wedge issues,” he concludes.

Linking these assessments is the belief that Democrats could not regain power without polarizing and dividing the electorate as aggressively as Rove and Bush had done. But that has hardly proved a model to emulate. Through Bush’s first term, Rove’s approach did produce undeniable benefits for the GOP. In Congress, remarkable party unity allowed Republicans to pass an ambitious agenda despite narrow majorities in both chambers and minimal support from Democrats. In 2002, a surge in Republican turnout linked partly to confidence in Bush as commander-in-chief after the 9/11 attacks helped Republicans defy the usual mid-term congressional losses for the President’s party and instead gain seats in both chambers. In 2004, Bush became the first Republican to win the White House while losing independent voters by increasing turnout of his partisans to the point where Republicans equaled Democrats as a share of the vote on Election Day–also a first in modern presidential polling. Halperin and Harris memorialize that record with something approaching rapture:

[E]ven without universal adoration, through three national election victories, and domestic policy achievements, they rarely lacked for…the capacity to win close congressional votes with Republican support; for the ability to rouse tens of thousands of die-hard volunteers to work on their behalf; or for the power to prompt more voters to cast approbatory ballots than ever before in a presidential election. They erected a model for electoral victory based on the party faithful.

By the time Halperin and Harris published those words, though, Bush’s model was imploding under the weight of its own contradictions. By focusing so narrowly on the priorities of his Republican base, Bush infuriated Democrats and steadily alienated independents and moderates. In both 2006 and 2008, independents broke sharply for the Democrats. The focus on “feeding the base” frustrated other efforts to expand the GOP’s reach. Hispanic voters, whom Rove and Bush initially sought to court, turned sharply away in both 2006 and 2008 after the White House, for fear of confronting the activist base, allowed conservative House Republicans to kill comprehensive immigration reform. Young people also moved decisively toward Democrats over those two elections.

Democrats now enjoy larger majorities in both congressional chambers than Republicans ever achieved during their 12 years in the majority; Republicans have largely been reduced to controlling House and Senate seats from the country’s most conservative regions. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and only the second since World War II to exceed 50.1 percent of the vote. Even now, through early 2009, the share of Americans identifying as Republicans, or expressing favorable opinions about the party, is running at the lowest levels in decades. Rove’s dream of a one party country lies in ruins.

Among these authors, Edsall most clearly sees the dangers of the polarizing strategy that Rove and Bush employed. But even he understates the cost Republicans might pay for identifying so unabashedly with the domestic, foreign policy, and cultural priorities of their hard-core conservative base.

Many of these authors assumed that Democrats could regain the initiative only by recapturing the allegiance of the white working-class voters–the “silent majority” or “Reagan Democrats”–who had moved toward the GOP since the late 1960s.

That belief was hardly unique to these books. Since the 1980s, the principal political debate among Democrats has revolved around how to win back working-class whites. Liberals from Jesse Jackson to Thomas Frank argued that economic populism provided the key; the moderates, clustered around the Democratic Leadership Council, insisted on more centrist cultural positions and more muscular foreign policy proposals. In truth, neither approach worked very well. Neither Bill Clinton’s talk of “personal responsibility,” nor Al Gore’s identification as the champion of “the people” against “the powerful,” nor John Kerry’s attacks on “Benedict Arnold corporations” dented the Republican hold on the white working class. According to exit polls, from 1988 through 2004, no Democratic presidential nominee won more than 44 percent of white voters without a college education (the best definition of the white working class). Even the economic collapse of 2008 didn’t loosen that grip: Exit polls show John McCain beat Obama by 58 percent to 40 percent among non-college white voters.

Yet even that strong performance didn’t save McCain from a decisive defeat. That’s because Democrats, while no one was looking, have built a coalition that no longer requires them to attract most working-class whites to win. That coalition includes voters under 30 (largely from the vast Millennial Generation), who voted 2-1 for Obama; non-white voters (African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities), who voted 4-1 for Obama; and college-educated whites, who have steadily moved toward the Democrats since Clinton’s first election, largely because they generally hold liberal positions on the same social and foreign-policy issues that have driven blue-collar whites toward the GOP. In the history of modern polling, no Democratic presidential nominee has ever won a majority of those college-educated whites, but Obama came close–he carried 47 percent of them overall and won a clear majority of those voters outside of the South. Obama won 78 of the 100 large counties with the highest proportion of college graduates; in 1984, Ronald Reagan won 82 of the same counties.

That suburban realignment has been central to building a new Democratic majority. Yet these books downplayed or ignored completely that upheaval in our political landscape–which has been driven, in substantial measure, by the GOP’s unconditional identification with a Southern-flavored conservatism. The principal problem with What’s The Matter With Kansas? is that Frank just as easily could have written What’s The Matter with Bergen County? He is quite acute in describing how Republicans utilize cultural grievances to entice working-class whites into voting against what he sees as their class interests, but he almost completely ignores the willingness of socially liberal, upper-middle-class whites to vote against their ostensible class interests by supporting Democrats. Edsall notes most clearly the Democratic gains among better-educated whites, yet even he considers that trend mostly problematic, because it inhibited Democrats from developing a populist message that might reconnect with the working class.

In fact, even a Democrat willing to channel William Jennings Bryan would still struggle with culturally conservative and frequently hawkish working-class white voters. After a generation-long ideological resorting of the electorate, we now live in a political world where party coalitions are held together more by culture than class, by values more than interests. Few analysts fully recognized the opportunity that transformation presented to Democrats, especially as Bush left a governing record that so alienated cosmopolitan, diverse, and secular America. In retrospect, as telling as Bush’s electoral successes from 2000 through 2004 was his failure to reverse the Democratic inroads into these groups even at his apex–18 states, most of them better-educated, more affluent, more secular, and more racially diverse than the nation overall, voted against him both times. Indeed those 18 states, with 245 elctoral college votes, have now voted Democratic in each of the past five elections. (So has the District of Columbia, which brings the Electoral College total for the Democratic streak to 248.)

Today, it is Democrats who have the greater opportunity to establish a lasting advantage. First, they are effectively competing for a broader range of voters: They hold 22 Senate seats in the 29 states that voted twice for George W. Bush, while Republicans hold only two of the 36 Senate seats in the 18 states that voted twice against him. Even more important, the modern Democratic coalition revolves around groups that are generally growing in society: minorities (which in 2008 cast more than a quarter of the vote for the first time in American history); the Millennial Generation (which is projected to double its share of the electorate over the next decade); and college-educated white professionals (who cast 35 percent of ballots last year, compared with 31 percent in 1988). By contrast, the non-college white voters at the core of the modern Republican coalition have dropped from 54 percent of the electorate in 1988 to just 39 percent in 2008.

This coalition of the ascendant, as I have called it, could pay increasing dividends for Democrats over time. But that will depend on Obama and the Democratic Congress managing their opportunity better than Bush and Republican congressional leaders did. Obama will need an expansive and inclusive vision if dreams of Democratic ascendance are not to dissolve as quickly as the predictions of lasting Republican dominance that now mark these books, for all their virtues, as relics of a fleeting moment.


Read more about ElectionsKarl Rovepolitics

Ronald Brownstein is the political director of Atlantic Media and author of The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized American.

Also by this author

The President as Pugilist

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus