Every president for nearly a century has had political operatives in the White House to advise him on how his decisions would play with the public and tell him what the ramifications of policy would be on his reelection prospects. But few Americans are cynical enough to believe that this political gamesmanship is anything other than a means to an end, the end being to effectuate policy. Teddy Roosevelt had trusts to bust and Manifest Destiny to fulfill; FDR a Depression to tame; Richard Nixon a detente to achieve; Ronald Reagan a government to shrink and a Cold War to win; Bill Clinton social programs to save from the conservative hatchet.
And so it has always been -- until now. From the moment of his disputed election in 2000, President Bush has been dramatically reversing the traditional relationship between politics and policy. In his administration, politics seem less a means to policy than policy is a means to politics. Its goal is not to further the conservative revolution as advertised. The presidency’s real goal is to disable the Democratic opposition, once and for all.
This has become a presidential mission partly by default. Bush came to the presidency with no commanding ideology, no grand crusade. He was in league with conservatives, but he was no fire-breather. For him, conservatism seemed a convenience -- the only path to the Republican nomination. One is hard-pressed to think of a single position Bush took during the 2000 campaign, save for his tax cuts, much less a full program.
As is typical with strategists, Karl Rove, Bush’s political Svengali, isn’t much of an ideologue either. According to Nicholas Lemann’s recent profile of him in the New Yorker, as Rove moved up the ladder of Texas GOP politics, he seemed more interested in advancing his career than in promoting policy. Rove is an operator. His job is to win elections and build unassailable coalitions so that he doesn’t have to worry about winning future elections. The philosophical stuff matters only insofar as he can parlay it into political advantage. As he told Lemann, “I think we’re at a point where the two major parties have sort of exhausted their governing agendas.” In Rove’s view, that means devising some new agenda that will attract votes.
The difference between Rove and former political operatives like Michael Deaver in the Reagan administration and Dick Morris in Clinton’s is that he doesn’t just advise on the political consequences of policy; he seems to be involved in crafting policy, making him arguably the single most important advisor in the White House. Rove’s hand and guiding spirit are everywhere evident. As John DiIulio, who briefly headed Bush’s faith-based initiative, indiscreetly put it in an interview last year, everything in this administration is political, by which he meant that everything is the product of political calculation and everything is devised specifically for political advantage.
Every administration tilts decisions to reward friends and hurt enemies, though none since the days of Warren G. Harding has been as zealous in delivering largess to supporters and none since Nixon has seemed so ruthless in meting out punishments as this one. (Coming under intense administration criticism for his remarks, DiIulio apologized and expressed deep remorse for his “groundless” charges.)
Still, Rove has had something more up his sleeve than lining up support for his master’s reelection. Rove’s genius -- and the true genius of this administration -- is that he (and it) recognizes that political machinations don’t have to be ancillary to policy. If Rove’s mission is to ensure Bush’s reelection and the formation of a GOP electoral monolith, he wants to devise policies that not only appeal to the party’s core voters. They should also disable the Democratic Party from contesting elections. This is government expressly designed for its own self-perpetuation -- government designed to undermine the political process.
Rove’s template for his new idea of governance is “tort reform” -- enacting laws that will reduce jury awards for various malfeasances, from product liability to medical malpractice. According to Lemann, this was Rove’s earliest legislative crusade in Texas. To this day, Republicans insist that businesses have been unfairly burdened by excessive jury awards, but the political reason this has become a fervent GOP cause is that trial lawyers contribute heavily to the Democratic Party. Choke off their income and you choke off a major source of Democratic money.
Similarly, the president’s huge tax cuts have been touted both as an economic stimulus and a way to shrink the federal government by denying it future revenues to spend. The latter goal was also Reagan’s when he pushed tax cuts more than 20 years ago. Reagan genuinely believed that government was bad. It was a central tenet of his ideology. But for this nonideological administration, there’s an overriding political reason to scale back government: Federal workers and employee unions are among the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party. Forget the economy. Tax cuts hit the Democrats where it hurts: right in the wallet.
The list goes on. Bush’s flirtation with school vouchers is called a way to improve education, but vouchers also would politically disempower teachers unions, another source of Democratic funding and support. The regulations issued last week by the Federal Communications Commission, allowing media conglomerates to own more television stations, are said to foster competition. But they are also a means to empower conservative voices like that of Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News often seems like an adjunct of the Bush White House. The faith-based initiative -- moving social services from government and community organizations to religious ones -- is portrayed as a way to make delivery of such services more efficient. Politically, it would undermine more liberal-oriented community institutions and advocates that might aid the Democrats.
The administration’s conservative judicial appointments are hailed as necessary to ensure a strict interpretation of the Constitution. But they are also a political means not only to disable laws -- like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act -- that favor Democrats by regulating fund-raising, but also to make laws that will aid Republicans in a host of areas, from the environment to product safety to redistricting. The administration brief opposing affirmative action was issued in the name of fairness but is also a long-range political plan to slow the growth of a minority professional class that would be likely to vote Democratic. And attempts to privatize Medicare and Social Security in the name of freedom of choice are really a blow aimed at the base of the Democratic Party, because these programs are most identified with Democrats and are still a reliable source of goodwill for the party. In each case, the ideological facade hides the political goal.
This magical turn of policy into politics is no less applicable to foreign affairs. The administration claimed the Iraq war was fought to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction and to prevent the Iraqi dictator from aiding terrorists. But as a political matter, the war struck the Democratic Party at one of its vulnerabilities: the idea that Democrats are weak on defense. The president’s sudden interest in brokering a Palestinian-Israeli peace also bears Rove’s fingerprints. For a man who has formulas measuring the potential effect on voting of every presidential decision, he knows a Middle East peace could pry Jewish voters and contributors from the Democratic Party. Through it all, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have become an all-purpose excuse for any anti-Democratic policy and pronouncement, including accusing Democrats of deficient patriotism, as the president did last year. In toto, it is what Lemann has called the “death of the Democratic Party” scenario.
Thirty years ago, Nixon pursued the same goal, but he deployed covert KGB methods in the belief that overtly attacking the basis of the political system was likely to bring opprobrium. (The covert approach did bring on impeachment hearings.) Rove can operate in broad daylight partly because what he is doing is perfectly legal, partly because his plan is so bold that he realizes no one in the media is likely to call him on it, and partly because demonizing and destroying Democrats is now a tenet of the party he guides. It has been said of Bush that he intends to finish the Reagan revolution by embedding conservatism so deeply into the governmental fabric that it will take generations to undo it. What he is really finishing, though, is not the Reagan revolution but the Clinton wars, which had far less to do with ideology than with politics. As Rove has engineered it, this is about power, pure and simple. It is about guaranteeing electoral results.
That is why, one suspects, Bush elicits such deep antagonism from the left -- deeper perhaps than any political figure since Nixon, even though he is personally genial and charming. At some level, maybe only subliminally, liberals know what the president and Rove are up to and fear that they will succeed in dismantling an effective two-party system. The left knows that Rove and company aren’t keen on debating issues, negotiating, compromising and horse-trading, the usual means of getting things done politically. On the contrary: The administration is intent on foreclosing them.
As much as liberals abhor the conservative agenda, there is something far more frightening to them now -- not that Republicans have an ideological grand plan but that they don’t have one. Instead, the GOP plan is policy solely in the service of politics, which should terrify democrats everywhere.