Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rove's Orwellian retrospective

The deal is, I’ll stop writing about Karl Rove as soon as Karl Rove stops trying to rewrite the history of his own career.

In a press interview late yesterday, George W. Bush’s political guru said it was a “mistaken impression” to believe that his winning strategy was “all about playing to the base, that supposedly the success of the two (presidential) campaigns have been that the president played to the base of the Republican party. Completely inaccurate.”

Oh really? It’s “completely inaccurate” to suggest that Rove charted a campaign strategy that played to the base of the Republican party? It’s a “mistaken impression?”

We all know that Bush’s people have long been fact-challenged about policy matters, such as the alleged rationale for waging war in Iraq, but apparently this state of denial extends to their own behavior as well.

The problem is, they can't simply flush history down the Orwellian memory hole. Rove’s new spin about himself is flatly contradicted by his past actions. It’s true that he positioned Bush as a moderate during the 2000 campaign - selling Bush as “a new kind of Republican,” a “compassionate conservative” – but after Bush came up 660,000 votes short in the popular vote, and had to be installed in the White House by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Rove began to chart a very different course.

I know this, because I heard him say so. During a public appearance at a conservative think tank not long after the election, he fretted about the fact that, by his calculations, more than four million Christian evangelicals had failed to show up at the polls in November 2000. Rove made it quite clear that he would motivate those evangelicals to show up for Bush in 2004 – and he made good on that promise by targeting their churches, even to the extent of asking the churches to fork over their membership directories for inclusion in the Bush campaign data base.

Nor was it sheer coincidence that, in 2004, anti-gay marriage referenda appeared on the ballots in 11 states. As numerous political science scholars have determined, those referenda helped attract an outsize number of Christian conservative voters – particularly in pivotal Ohio, where some analysts believe that the heftier base turnout was instrumental in putting Bush over the top.

Contrary to Rove’s denial yesterday, the ‘04 re-election strategy hinged heavily on motivating and expanding the Republican base – as his own lieutenants have long acknowledged. Rove’s pollster, Matthew Dowd, explained the base-motivation strategy in a post-election interview on PBS’ Frontline. When he and Rove were mapping the ’04 strategy, they decided it would be a waste of time to focus most of their efforts on persuading independent swing voters, because, in their calculations, those voters weren’t nearly as numerous as they used to be. “Swings” used to be 20 percent of the electorate, Dowd explained, but in this era of polarization, they are only six or seven percent of the electorate. Hence the decision to motivate and expand the Republican base.

Dowd said: “You obviously had to do fairly well among the six or seven [percent], but you could lose the six or seven percent and win the election, which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, ‘Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters.’….Nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it…We didn't say, ‘Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing.’ We said, ‘Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation.’

"And obviously," Dowd continued, "that decision influenced everything that we did. It influenced how we targeted mail, how we targeted phones, how we targeted media, how we traveled, the travel that the president and the vice president did to certain areas, how we did organization, where we had staff. All of that was based off of that, and ultimately, thank goodness, it was the right decision.”

Dowd was seconded in the PBS show by Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon, who called the base-motivation strategy "pretty radical...it struck me as a political consultant as something radical, because for years we had always talked about that persuadable middle electorate, and that's what it was all about. You ignored everything else. All your resources went into that persuadable vote."

And I also recall a sitdown with Rove at the 2004 Republican National Convention. He met with a few of us scribes, to spell out his strategy for winning Pennsylvania. He said nothing about the importance of wooing the moderate Republicans and independent swing voters who populate the Philadelphia suburbs – because, obviously, he did not see that as a priority. Rather, he stressed the importance of mobilizing and motivating the Christian conservatives who were increasingly populating the new exurban communities in places like Lancaster County.

He said at length that many of those people are apolitical and apathetic, and that it was his job to get their attention, because many of them don’t subscribe to “the newsletter from the Christian Coalition.” He said that his challenge “is to get them motivated to participate, to get them literally physically registered. And then getting them out to vote.”

So if Karl Rove insists, in his inevitable future memoir, that he did not deliberately play to the Republican base, booksellers might well be advised to place the tome on the fiction shelf, perhaps next to Orwell.