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Working the 'wedge' on the White House

A new Democratic strategy is under development,  and it bears watching: a divide-and-conquer approach that is making life miserable for Bush and the GOP.  By Howard Fineman.

WASHINGTON – For Democrats, the outside-the-Beltway strategic lessons from this week’s elections are clear: run as a moderate or run on competence (or both), and surf to victory on voters’ disdain for President Bush and his party’s corrosive ad tactics.

But there’s another Democratic strategy under development, this one inside the Beltway, and it bears watching: a divide-and-conquer approach that is making life miserable for Bush and the GOP.

Call it Wedge Strategy 2.0.  I saw it in operation the other day when I happened to drop by Sen. Harry Reid’s press office in the Capitol just as his press secretary, Jim Manley, was spinning his bosses’ latest line of attack: that “all roads” of controversy lead to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

“The focus is on Cheney,” Manley said happily, “and you can quote me on that!” Cheney and Halliburton, Cheney and torture policy, Cheney and the CIA leak, Cheney and pre-war intelligence, Cheney and global warming….

If you are a political junkie, you’ll remember Wedge Strategy 1.0.  Invented by the Republicans in the 80s, the idea was to create division within the then-majority Democratic Party at the grassroots by highlighting “wedge issues” such as affirmative action, abortion, gay rights, free trade and immigration. The aim was to create friction between, say, black Democrats and white unionists over affirmative action. Party-building is about papering over conflicting views; the Republicans’ goal in those years was to expose them.

It was an outside, grassroots game.

The Democrats’ New Wedge Strategy is an inside one, aimed at Bush-led Republican Washington, where team loyalty is supposed to be the number one virtue, and where the president has ruled with an iron hand. The Democrats want to unhinge that discipline by exposing — or creating — friction between: Bush and Cheney, Bush and his political advisor, Karl Rove; the White House and the Republican-run Congress; and between competing Republican leadership tongs on Capitol Hill.

None of these figures or factions is popular in the country right now, and the Dems’ rather simple idea is to force them to defend each other in broad daylight. And the Dems know that Bush — a loyalist by nature, who believes in the Texas adage of “dancing with the one that brung ya” — is likely to take the bait.

Here’s the way it’s playing out:

Bush v. Cheney
Rather than go after the president, the Democrats are highlighting Cheney, and hope either that the president is forced to come to the defense of his own veep, or publicly distance himself from him — at which point they’ll shout what amounts to “Cheney’s guilty!”

Bush aides are obliging the Dems by leaking word — or spin — that the veep had lost clout long before his former top aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

Now Democrats are highlighting Cheney’s role as an advocate for exemptions to the new anti-torture policy, and focusing on the “what he knew and when he knew it” questions raised by the leak investigation of Libby.

Bush v. Rove
While most legal experts doubt that Rove will be indicted, Democrats will push for a public accounting from the “Boy Genius” about his role in the CIA matter.

More important, they will press the president to explain why he didn’t — or shouldn’t now — fire Rove for his involvement in the Valerie Plame matter.

Bush and Rove have been a political team for 32 years; no one expects them to go their separate ways. But Rove has his share of Republican enemies in town, and the Dems would love to give them an excuse to call for his departure, or at least demotion. The aim, if nothing else, is to unsettle the Boss.

White House v. Hill
The Bush presidency has ruled the GOP-run Congress as a fiefdom of its own. It worked in the first term, but has left behind deep resentment in the backbenches of the House, and the Senate as a whole, where Majority Leader Bill Frist (installed at the behest of Rove), is not widely liked.

Democrats want to stoke that resentment. One way: encourage a new discussion of budget cuts. The Dems aren’t really any more interested in cutting the deficit than the Republicans are, but they would like to see the GOP at war with itself over how to do it.

Republican v. Republican on the Hill
This is the easiest one for the Democrats: just raise the profile of Sen. John McCain by doing more deals with him. And they solemnly back his effort to ensure that foreign detainees are interrogated humanely. The senator’s chief foe: Cheney. For Democrats, there’s no Wedge Strategy wrestling match they’d rather see — unless they can find a way to lure Bush into the ring, too.