Karl Rove has been spectacularly right about one big thing in his far-flung career: his calculation that Republicans in the late nineties and early 2000s needed to be rebranded as problem solvers, who had a formula to compete on Democratic terrain like education and health-care, outflanked Clintonian centrism when it was on the verge of realigning American politics. Rove was just as spectacularly wrong on another front, his blind spot on the risks of conservatism “going corporate” and turning into just another patchwork of special interests and powerbrokers.
It’s worth keeping the dual nature of Rove’s Bush era legacy in mind as he plots an ambitious effort to intervene in primary fights on behalf of Republicans who are…well, that part remains vague, but excludes at least candidates with a history of dabbling in witchcraft or who have a penchant for philosophizing on gynecology.
If Rove’s version of influence merely takes the form of injecting one more source of shadowy cash into races, then he has already misread recent campaign cycles. Deep-pocketed front-runners from Charlie Crist to Bill Bolling never made it past the starting gate, and it is the insurgents who have cleaned up in GOP state primaries who have been chronically under-funded. The missing element for the losers in these fights has not been a lack of cash to sustain ads or phone banks, but an inability to mobilize rank and file primary voters with either a policy vision or a rhetorical message beyond inside baseball about electability.
In an era where the activists who dominate party primaries award no extra points based on time served in office, or chits from funneling checks to local party committees, the populist, anti-establishment wing of the party has filled a void. In blunt terms, their fears are not getting outflanked with swing voters, but getting trammeled by a government that serves every agenda but theirs. They distrust “reform” as a code for more mandates. They are corrosively suspicious of political power because it seems too subject to being rented or bought by corporate power. And many of them have adopted a Manichaen view of politics that genuinely considers constitutional liberty and fiscal stability to be in some degree of jeopardy.
To date, the establishment of the party has been neither creative nor effective in countering this Tea Party/ libertarian wing. Assembling a conventionally conservative record on social issues has not done the trick, nor has the standard blue-print of touting a pro-business platform. In fact, at times, more mainsteam Republicans have been infatuated with the rituals of talking up their successes in passing obscure legislation or crafting bipartisan compromises—tokens of good governance a short time ago, that currently seem ill-suited for the more cynical mood of hyper-partisan primary electorates.
Frankly, Rove has his own share of accountability for the weakened state of establishment Republicans. It was under his distracted watch (too unwieldy a set of responsibilities under George W. Bush, and a constant need to calibrate policy with the demands of assembling a war-chest) that Republicans veered off into a legacy that was ripe with contradictions: a war effort that was massaged to avoid disturbing the business climate; farm bills and energy bills that spun money in the directions of the industries they purported to regulate; and a wink and a nod from “fiscal conservatives” at spiraling deficits and swelling bureaucracies. Those inconsistencies between rhetoric and performance demoralized the Republican base, and that base’s disengagement from the 2006 and 2008 elections helped install the Washington of Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.
If Rove is to have a hand in reversing these trends, it will be with his tactical acumen and not his donor rolodex. As much as today’s conservative grassroots despises the term “compassionate conservative”, Rove’s rebranding operation made his party competitive with professional women, Hispanics, 18-29 year olds, and dominant with blue-collar downscale whites. Had Mitt Romney compiled the same vote shares in each of these segments as Bush did in either 2000 or 2004, he would have defeated Obama, even with the changed demographics of the 2012 cycle.
While Rove’s fusion of conservatism with middle-class populism and reform-minded initiatives couldn’t be recreated in a budgetary climate of trillion dollar deficits, the instinct that the political right can engage ordinary economic anxieties is a necessary proposition if Republicans are to reclaim the frayed parts of the coalition that dominated the last political generation. And it is relevant to the equally pressing question of how at least some of the conservative base can be courted in intraparty struggles.
To a degree that is not well understood, the conservative grassroots is an overwhelmingly middle class, wage earning constituency that sometimes resents government as much for its ineffectiveness as its excesses. At the core is a sense that their premiums will continue to rise in spite of (or because of) the Affordable Care Act, that the tax code insulates the brackets above and below them, that schools that educate their children are a poor return on their taxes, and that both parties are too entangled with their own favorite interests.
The Rove of a decade ago, before he held the keys to the kingdom of Republican money, understood the unease that fuels conservatism activism. But absent a compelling alternative vision from the establishment, much of that activism has been redirected to what Ron Paul biographer Brian Doherty describes as a “philosophy…that government exists only to protect citizens’ lives and property from assault”. A philosophy that, as inspiring as it is on the right, falls dramatically short of what a majority of Americans of all ideological stripes have come to expect from the government they fund.
If Rove’s intervention reflects his handiwork of the late nineties, it will reintroduce elements like education reform and won’t shrink from tough reforms of the insurance industry and the maze of federal largess that has earned the epithet “crony capitalism”. It’s a strategy that would strengthen the hands of conservatives who want to reclaim their label from a purely negative conception of public purpose. If his latest effort simply evokes the big business, trade association sensibilities of the last five years, more good money is about to be wasted.