Rove & Bush: Bet 'Em High & Sleep In The Streets? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Political roulette

I've never been a gambler and I've never actually understood the mentality. Years ago, I told a friend that we live in a country driven by "chain letter economics" and I'm convinced my perception is truer today than it was at the time it first crossed my mind. The basic gist of my theory is that we Americans are always focused upon being first and winning and we often make choices consistent with that premise...which of course means we are employing the kind of thinking that underlies the premise of a chain letter...and therefore makes it a fully flawed equation.

In other words, if everyone believes they can sit atop the pyramid as the victor, who are the individuals that make up the rest of the pyramid? The bottom line is that for every winner (by that I am defining a winner in terms of a sports champion like Tiger Woods or a business success like Bill Gates or being elected president) there has to be countless losers.

The same equation applies to politics. That brings me to Karl Rove...and that has to include George Bush, if simply by association...though I'm inclined to believe that their alignment is fully deliberate and that it is predicated upon the notion that anything short of absolute victory is insufficient. A good friend of mine has an alternate description for the same mindset I've described. He called it "Bet 'em high and sleep in the streets". In the end, both theories suggest that people often take risks that have a low likelihood of succeeding or being sustained…even if one has been lucky enough to occasionally beat the odds.

Ron Brownstein has an article in the Los Angeles Times that points to the possibility that the Rove/Bush strategy for success may have some of these very same characteristics. In the build-up to this midterm election, I've written extensively about Karl Rove because I am truly fascinated by strategy...particularly when it is heavily reliant on an understanding of human psychology...something I believe Karl Rove views as a primary consideration. You can read some of my prior observations here, here, here, and here. Some excerpts from the Brownstein article follow.

The great risk in President Bush's political strategy has always been that it leaves him very little margin for error.

From the outset of his presidency, Bush has accepted division as the price of mobilization.

In Congress and across the country, that ideologically polarizing agenda has helped Bush unify and excite Republicans. But it has come at the cost of antagonizing Democrats and straining his relations with independent voters.

This strategy has rested on the calculation that if Bush generates enough constituent turn-out on Election Day from Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, he can survive unease among moderate independents and intense opposition from Democrats.

I've previously suggested that Karl Rove's approach to political strategy is counterintuitive and it isn't difficult to understand if you simply look at how he goes about creating a voting coalition. Conventional wisdom would suggest that one would want to have broad appeal and be able to pick off voters from the middle and even occasionally from the opposition Party. That's not the case in Karl Rove's world. His goal is to actually focus on defining the enemy and drawing the distinctions in order to build a coalition with clear and rigid views...and it has worked remarkably least to this point in time. As Brownstein aptly states, this leaves little room for error...and it also comports with my own theory. If one can pull it off, the rewards are great...but if your calculations are off in the slightest, it can spell disaster.

On balance, that equation worked for Bush in his first term. Bolstered by his post-9/11 glow, Bush inspired an enormous Republican turnout that spurred GOP congressional gains in 2002. In 2004, another Republican surge powered gains in Congress and Bush's reelection over Democrat John F. Kerry. For Karl Rove and other top GOP strategists, those victories were evidence that Bush was building a narrow but stable electoral majority.

Bush's margin of victory over Kerry, measured as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Even in the usual post-election honeymoon period, Bush's approval rating never exceeded 55% in Gallup surveys, below the high point for every other reelected president since World War II. Bush's support fell back beneath 50% even before his second inauguration.

All of this meant that even on Bush's best days, nearly half the country opposed him and his direction. That didn't leave him with much of a cushion for bad days, which have come in bunches during his second term.

It takes little analysis to see the limitations of this type of strategy. If you alienate any of your constituents, as the GOP may have done with the Mark Foley scandal, the potential to add a replacement constituency is virtually nonexistent and should you actually decide to attempt as much (which would mean altering your message), you may well anger even more members of the constituency you're already losing. You also run the risk of alienating an altogether different constituent group. Frankly, the Bush administration has attempted several of these midstream adjustments and it appears that voters may no longer be willing to overlook these indiscretions. Further, after six years of confrontational rhetoric, one would expect to find very few converts as the polarizing sentiment has only heightened with the passage of time.

A combination of missteps (the faltering federal response to Hurricane Katrina) and miscalculations (the Terri Schiavo case, the crash of the Social Security restructuring plan) topped by the relentless, grinding violence and disorder in Iraq, have kept Bush on the defensive almost constantly since early 2005.

Because Bush started with backing from only about half the country, these reversals have lowered him, and his party, to dangerous depths. His approval rating since mid-2005 has rarely reached 45%, and he is now limping into the midterm election with support in most surveys below 40%.

One measure of Bush's impact on the election comes from the Majority Watch project conducted by the polling firms RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics. Since the summer, the project has conducted nearly 75,000 automated phone surveys in congressional districts around the country. And it has found a close correlation between attitudes about Bush and preferences in November.

The obvious danger for Republicans is that far more voters in the surveys disapprove (53%) than approve of Bush's performance (39%). Among independents, those who disapprove outnumber supporters by 2 to 1.

We see pundits debating whether this election will be a referendum on the President or if it will simply be about local issues. Historically, midterm elections are indeed decided upon local issues but I contend that this one will be different. The reason I believe as much is because the high stakes Rove/Bush strategy has required lockstep loyalty and that means it will be increasingly difficult for GOP candidates to distance themselves from the President and succeed in not being viewed as an appendage that is fully connected to the Bush agenda. That makes it virtually impossible to separate local issues from any voter mandated referendum on the Bush administration. Essentially, I believe that voters, for the most part, see the Republican congress and George Bush as one and the same and intend to vote accordingly.

"He's a really good and decent man, but he empowers the Bush administration," Anne Crofts of Providence said at a recent local Democratic rally to explain why she would vote against moderate Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Bush is once again stressing sharp-edged ideological differences with Democrats on taxes and national security; maybe that will rally enough conservatives to the polls to avoid a deluge on Nov. 7. But if a deluge comes, more of the Republicans looking to succeed Bush in 2008 may ask whether a political strategy that provokes so much opposition, even on its strongest days, can be sustained. They may also question whether the White House vision of a narrow but stable electoral majority is a contradiction in terms.

Look, if Lincoln Chaffee cannot separate himself from the President in order to win on local issues in Rhode Island, then countless Republican incumbents are in deep trouble. Chaffee didn't even vote for this President in 2004 and voters may still hold him accountable. I can't imagine an example that better supports Brownstein's point and my contention that the Rove/Bush strategy is a high stakes gamble. While Karl Rove and George Bush bet 'em high, it may be a number of Republican candidates who find themselves in the unenviable position of sleeping in the streets on November 8th.

Daniel DiRito | October 22, 2006 | 1:04 PM
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