Bush’s failed Machiavelli messes up big time

by Andrew Sullivan, Times/UK, March 25, 2007

If you have a reputation for being a Machiavellian, you aren’t one. That was Machiavelli’s view, at least. The key to all successful power-mongers, he argued, is the appearance of innocence, and a reputation for honesty and benevolence. Underneath, of course, you’re stitching the system up.

So it doesn’t take a genius to realise that if Niccolo were around today he would laugh heartily at the idea that Karl Rove is a master of the art of ruthless politics.

President George W Bush’s right-hand man has a reputation as one of the nastiest, toughest players in the business. Last week Congress prepared but did not deliver a subpoena to have him testify about the highly suspicious firing of eight allegedly independent US attorneys in battle-ground states. He is regarded as being at the centre of the outing of Valerie Plame, the former covert CIA agent.

A true Machiavellian would never be associated with these tawdry and counterproductive political manoeuvres. A true Machiavellian would keep his eyes on the big power moves while coming off like Mother Teresa.

But just as Rove has become entangled in petty scandal, he has bungled the bigger strategy as well. Six years into the Bush presidency Rove’s fantasy of a permanent Republican majority is fast becoming a B-movie of a broken political movement.

The myth of Rove’s political brilliance is not hard to dispel. He has often picked the easiest and sleaziest short-term tactic over the more difficult long-term strategy. He began his career race-baiting and liberal-bashing a moribund Democratic party in the Deep South. It wasn’t hard to fell those teetering timbers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yes he shepherded Bush to be governor of Texas in the 1990s, but again the political winds were strongly behind him. Texas had been trending Republican ever since the Lyndon B Johnson era, and Rove found in Bush a congenial and single-minded fellow to occupy a relatively weak executive office.

Rove does deserve credit for creating an aura of inevitability around Bush in 1999 and 2000, and for sliming John McCain in the South Carolina primary (after a near-fatal setback for Bush in New Hampshire). But much of the credit for Bush’s eventual razor-thin victory goes to Al Gore.

Even so, Rove actually advised Bush to stop campaigning the weekend before the vote, and suppressed a drunk-driving record that emerged very late in the campaign and nearly derailed the entire effort. These tactical errors made Bush’s victory a statistical rounding error.

Then came what in retrospect seems the stupidest decision made in a very long time in American politics. Rove advised a moderate, congenial and compassionate Republican, elected with a minority of the popular vote, to forget about retaining the political centre. Rove believed that appealing to moderates was a fool’s game when there were millions of alienated evangelical voters waiting to be tapped.

“Play to the base” was Rove’s mantra — and he could create what he called a “permanent majority”. If four or five million fundamentalists who had previously never voted could be marshalled into a new political movement, victory would be his. The rest could be bribed with large amounts of government spending (cash for churches, pills for the elderly, tax breaks for big business, tariffs for steel, subsidies for agriculture).

So Bush cut taxes, turned on the spending spigot and stuck to a strictly religious line on social policy: no new federal embryonic stem cell research, judicial appointments designed to reverse the Roe vs Wade case that established women’s right to abortion, a constitutional amendment to ban civil recognition of gay couples and a clumsy attempt to play politics with Terri Schiavo, a woman in Florida in a permanent vegetative state.

Bush’s response to 9/11 fell exactly into this Rovian pattern. Some war leaders respond to an attack by bringing the opposition party into their cabinet (as Winston Churchill did) and creating a government of national unity. Bush did the opposite, forging a war policy solely in the executive branch, sidelining the Senate and then running a mid-term election strategy by accusing Democrats of being soft on terror. It worked in the short term. But by the 2004 election the strains were beginning to show. Mistakes in Iraq were not viewed as national faults, to be corrected, but as the president’s sole responsibility, to be denied.

In wartime, Americans tend to back their president: those reelected to a second term do so with big majorities. Bush, thanks to Rove, broke this pattern, gaining a mere 51% in wartime with an economy goosed by Keynesian spending. Yes, he won — and he was lucky again in his opponents. But the basic structure was weak.

Just how weak is beginning to become clear. The Rove coalition has no viable candidate for 2008. Rudy Giuliani is a social liberal; McCain loathes the Rove base, and the feeling is mutual; Mitt Romney was only very recently boasting that he would be more pro-gay than Edward Kennedy. Evangelicals are splitting between those who want to keep their focus on sexual issues and those who want to take a more public stand on issues such as the environment and torture.

The mismanaged war has removed the Republicans’ advantage on national security. The younger generation is overwhelmingly Democratic. I remember when it was actually cool to be conservative. Those days are gone. In 2002 the parties were tied at 43% each across all Americans. After five more years of Bush, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center released last week, the Democrats have 50% support compared with the Republicans’ 35%.

The survey also found big drops in religious intensity and big increases in the percentage eager to see government play a larger role in taking care of the poor. One of Rove’s ideological legacies may be the revival of old-school liberalism.

What Rove has also done by centring the Republican party in the Deep South is alienate many moderates and centre-right voters in the Rocky Mountains and Midwest. A state such as Colorado that was once evenly split now looks increasingly Democratic. California — the state of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — was abandoned long ago. And the one issue that really fires up the white base of the Republican party is hostility to illegal immigration. But a policy like that could turn off the huge and growing Hispanic vote, isolating the Republicans even further into a white, narrow and angry image.

Rove, in other words, may be on the verge of a historic realignment of the kind he used to boast of. He may indeed have created a new and permanent majority — but for the Democrats, not the Republicans. Machiavelli would be unimpressed.


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