WASHINGTON – This fall’s election season is going to make the past three look like episodes of “Barney.”
The conventional notion here is that Democrats want to “nationalize” the 2006 elections — dwelling on broad themes (that is, the failures of the Bush Administration) — while the Republicans will try to “localize” them as individual contests that have nothing to do with, ahem, the goings on in the capital.
That was before the GOP situation got so desperate. The way I read the recent moves of Karl Rove & Co., they are preparing to wage war the only way open to them: not by touting George Bush, Lord knows, but by waging a national campaign to paint a nightmarish picture of what a Democratic Congress would look like, and to portray that possibility, in turn, as prelude to the even more nightmarish scenario: the return of a Democrat (Hillary) to the White House.
Rather than defend Bush, Rove will seek to rally the Republicans’ conservative grassroots by painting Democrats as the party of tax increases, gay marriage, secularism and military weakness. That’s where the national message money is going to be spent.
The numbers explain the strategy
The president has a job-approval rating of 31 percent in the latest comprehensive poll, by the New York Times and CBS. His “favorable” rating, a more general measure of attitudes, is only 29 percent — barely above the levels enjoyed, if that is the word, by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Bush can’t hope to raise that number significantly by this November — no matter how many seniors sign up for the Medicare prescription drug plan or how many Sunnis join the new Iraqi government.
So the White House will try to survive by driving down the ratings of the other side. Right now, an impressive 55 percent of voters say they have a favorable view of the Democrats, one of the party’s best ratings in years. But the “favorables” of leading national Democrats are weak: 34 percent for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; 26 percent for Sen. John Kerry; 28 percent for former Vice President Al Gore. The bottom line: As long as the Democrats remain a generic, faceless alternative, they win; Rove’s aim is to paint his version of their portrait.
You can see him busy with the brushes at his easel now, even as he waits to see whether Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is going to indict him for false testimony.
Take the new GOP deal on taxes. It would, among other things, extend by two years the Bush-era’s reductions in taxes on capital gains and dividends. The claim is that doing so will sustain overall economic growth (which has been pretty impressive, even though Bush gets no credit for it.) But the real political target is somewhat narrower: the estimated 60 million Americans who own stock.
Bush and the GOP talk earnestly about their vision of an “ownership society.” And maybe it’s true that they want everybody to be part of it. In the meantime, however, they will focus on trying to secure the support, or at least the acquiescence, of voters with portfolios. They aren’t the stereotypical country club Republicans of old, by the way; they include tens of millions of middle-class Americans — ancestral Democrats — who nevertheless don’t want Congress to do anything that would depress the value of their 401 (k)s.
The idea is to get Democrats to vote against the tax-cut bill — ANY tax-cut bill. Let the op-ed pages rail about the deficit and the debt; the White House survivalists won’t care if they can find a way to accuse the Democrats of “wanting to raise taxes.”
The political apocalypse strategy
Then there is the attention being paid — and it’s just starting — to obscure Democratic characters such as Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. As of now, only political junkies know that Conyers, an African-American and old-school liberal from Detroit, would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if the Democrats regain control of the House. Few know that Conyers has expressed interest in holding hearings on the impeachment of the president.
But before this election season is over, Republican and conservative voters are going to know a lot about Conyers. To hear the GOP tell it, the impeachment of the president will be the number one priority if Conyers gets his say, which of course Rep. Nancy Pelosi will be only too happy to give him. The aim will be to rally The GOP Base with talk of a political Apocalypse.
The issue of gay marriage will play a part. So far this year, at least seven states will have on their ballots measures to ban same-sex marriage: Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. There are citizen-led campaigns seeking to add the issue to ballots in Arizona, Colorado and Illinois.
But GOP strategists eventually are going to want to “nationalize” this topic, too, by bringing up in Congress again the draft of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I know that Dick Cheney isn’t for it, and neither is his daughter, Mary, whose new book “Now It’s My Turn” was released this week. Bush in the past has claimed that he won’t make lobbying for the measure a high priority, but he doesn’t have to. The aim is to bring it up for votes in Congress.
Strength and faith wins votes
Beyond that amendment is the more general GOP theme of faith in the public square. To highlight that issue, the White House will use judicial nominations. That’s one reason why Bush is now pushing the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh. Faith matters — namely, that he is a conservative Catholic.
A Rove Reliable on the Senate Judiciary Committee made the strategy clear at the confirmation hearing: Kavanaugh, he said, is the type of judge who will oppose “hostility to all things religious in American life.” Read: Democrats.
Finally, there is the war on terrorism and military strength — the only two areas in the New York Times/CBS poll where voters say they trust the GOP more than the Democrats.
Bush and Rove are daring the Democrats to turn the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden as head of the CIA into a fight over the president’s secret eavesdropping program. That’s a fight they think they can win politically, by turning a legitimate constitutional issue into another Us v. Them morality play.
It’s worked before.