Building a Coalition, Forgetting to Rule
By DAVID FRUM
AS a political strategist, Karl Rove offered a brilliant answer to the wrong question.
The question he answered so successfully was a political one: How could Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?
The question he unfortunately ignored was a policy question: What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it?
Mr. Rove answered his chosen question by courting carefully selected constituencies with poll-tested promises: tax cuts for traditional conservatives; the No Child Left Behind law for suburban moderates; prescription drugs for anxious seniors; open immigration for Hispanics; faith-based programs for evangelicals and Catholics.
These programs often contradicted each other. How do you cut taxes and also create a big new prescription drug benefit? If the schools are failing to educate the nation’s poor, how does it make sense to expand that population by opening the door to even more low-wage immigration?
Instead of seeking solutions to national problems, “compassionate conservatism” started with slogans and went searching for problems to justify them. To what problem, exactly, was the faith-based initiative a solution?
This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections. It was a politics that treated the problems of governance as secondary. But of course governance is what incumbents get judged on — and since 2004, the negative verdict on President Bush’s governance has created a lethal political environment for Republican candidates.
Inspiring rhetoric and solemn promises can do only so much for an incumbent administration. Can it win wars? Can it respond to natural disasters? Can it safeguard the nation’s borders? Can it fill positions of responsibility with worthy appointees? If it cannot do those things, not even the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation can save it.
This is not to say Karl Rove’s detractors have him pegged. For instance, they often accuse him of practicing “wedge politics” and fomenting “polarization.” They never seem to understand that polarization and wedge politics are very different things, indeed direct opposites.
Wedge politics unites a large constituency on one side, while splitting the coalition on the other side. In the 1970s, crime was a wedge issue: pushing white urban Democrats away from their black and liberal New Deal allies. In this strict sense, the only wedge issue Mr. Rove deployed was immigration, and he deployed it against his own side, dividing business donors from the conservative voting base.
Polarization, however, is Karl Rove’s specialty. He united his own base on one side — and united his opponents on the other. Al Gore and John Kerry each won 48 percent, the best back-to-back performance by a losing party since the 19th century. Play-to-the-base politics can be a smart strategy — so long as your base is larger than your opponents’.
But it has been apparent for many years that the Democratic base is growing faster than the Republican base. The numbers of the unmarried and the non-churchgoing are growing faster than the numbers of married and church-going Americans. The nonwhite and immigrant population is growing at a faster rate than that of white native-borns. The Democrats are the party of the top and bottom of American society; the Republicans do best in the great American middle, which is losing ground.
Mr. Rove often reminded me of a miner extracting the last nuggets from an exhausted seam. His attempts to prospect a new motherlode have led the Republican party into the immigration debacle.
In my brief service as a speechwriter inside the Bush administration, I often wondered why it was that skeptical experts on issues like immigration could never get even a hearing for their point of view. We took the self-evident brilliance of our plans so much for granted that we would not even meet, for example, with conservative academics who had the facts and figures to demonstrate the illusion of Rovian hopes for a breakthrough among Hispanic voters. We were so mesmerized by the specious analogies between 1996 and 1896 that we forgot that analogies are literary devices, not evidence.
In 2006, Republicans and conservatives paid the price for this we-know-best attitude. I fear that we will pay an even higher price in 2008.
Building coalitions is essential to political success. But it is not the same thing as political success. The point of politics is to elect governments, and political organizations are ultimately judged by the quality of government they deliver. Paradoxically, the antigovernment conservatives of the 1980s took the problems of government far more seriously than the pro-government conservatives of the 2000s.
The outlook is not, however, entirely bleak for Republicans. I notice that much of the Democratic party, and especially its activist netroots, has decided that the way to beat Rove Republicanism is by emulating it. They are practicing the politics of polarization; they are elevating “framing” above policy; they have decided that winning the next election by any means is all that matters — and never mind what happens on the day after that.
If they follow this path, they should not be surprised when they discover that it leads to the same destination.
David Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”