Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Man Behind the Curtain

Karl Rove has been depicted as the evil genius behind the throne of the Bush Administration, carefully manipulating the policies and public for political gain. So how’s he doing so far with the re-election campaign? Nick Confessore says so far, not so good.

Rove would draw a thin majority of seniors here with prescription drug benefits, a thin majority of Catholics there with his “compassionate conservatism” and suckups to the Pontiff. He’d increase Bush’s numbers among religious and morally conservative African Americans with his faith-based initiative, and earn a growing percentage of Hispanics and Jews with Bush’s immigration policies and tight alliance with Ariel Sharon, respectively. Blue-collar union members could be wooed with protectionist steel tariffs. And so on and so forth. Simultanously, and somewhat paradoxically, Rove was tending to the conservative base, ensuring that they would be well-fed and cared-for so as to prevent a repeat of the desertion that allegedly cost the elder George H.W. Bush his job back in 1992.

So how’s Rove doing?

Let’s look at the macro picture. For some months now, the president has been roughly neck and neck with John Kerry in the mid-forties, but recent polls have consistently given Kerry the edge, and in some Bush has come within spitting distance of dipping under 40 percent. No matter what kind of spin you care to indulge about bounces and 9/11, that’s a bad place for an incumbent to be. Other numbers — Bush’s rating on national security, right track/wrong track numbers, his showing among independents — are also looking unfavorable.

On the micro level, Bush is losing the Catholic vote, has failed to make Jews noticably less Democratic, and isn’t doing any better among African-American voters than in 2000 (when he got a smaller percentage of their votes than his dad did). Bush has also long since lost the ground he made in 2002 among Hispanic voters, leaving that group about as supportive of Bush as it was in 2000. (Worse for the president, his numbers among Hispanics appear to be going down, not up, especially in battleground states in the Southwest and in Florida.) Senior voters appear to strongly dislike the Medicare bill, and the AARP has now endorsed Kerry. And I haven’t seen any evidence yet that Bush is set to improve his 39 percent 2000 showing among labor households.

In other words, all this hoped-for slicing and dicing and peeling off seems not to have panned out.

Why? Looking back at the nearly four years of Bush’s term, it’s clear that, with a few exceptions, nearly all of the policies aimed at these voting blocs were very thin gruel, often hatched at a talking-points level of foresight and planning, with either little substance or substance that, when the targeted group took a closer look, turned out to be bad.


The point is that, at the end of the day, spin and flim-flam and clever rhetoric will only take you so far. You have to show results. Your policies have to benefit a broad majority of the voting public. Unfortunately for Bush, millionaires, business lobbyists, and people who believe gay marriage will bring down the Republic do not constitute such a majority.

All of these are excellent points. But what is still worrisome is that Kerry has not – so far – gone to great lengths to exploit these weaknesses on the part of Bush. He is still running a reactive campaign by having to answer to the Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth,” or the would-he-or-wouldn’t-he go to war question. That is the turf of Karl Rove who made his bones as a campaign goon by forcing his opponents to react rather than let them define the campaign on their own terms. I wouldn’t count out Karl Rove – he’s got more comebacks than Freddy Krueger and his tactics are just as brutal; check out this profile of Rove by Nicholas Lehmann in The New Yorker.

It ain’t over yet.