As the nation’s trial lawyers again funneled tens of millions of dollars to Democrats and their causes in the last election, Republicans were crafting a strategy to choke off that money for future campaigns.
President Bush’s agenda for the next four years, much of which he will highlight in his State of the Union address tonight, includes many proposals that would not only change public policy but, the GOP hopes, achieve an ambitious political goal: Stripping money and voters from the Democratic Party and cementing Republican dominance for years after he leaves office.
One of the clearest examples is an effort to limit jury awards in lawsuits against doctors and businesses. The caps might not only discourage “frivolous” lawsuits, as Bush argues, but also deprive trial lawyers of income from damage awards that they could then give to Democrats.
“If we could succeed in getting some form of tort reform passed -- medical malpractice reform or any of part of that -- it would go a long ways toward ... taking away the muscle, the financial muscle that they have,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who ousted Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle last fall despite a heavy flood of trial lawyer money backing the Democrat.
On issue after issue, the White House is staking out positions that achieve a policy goal while expanding the GOP’s appeal to new voters or undermining the Democrats’ ability to compete. Interviews with Bush advisors, a recent memo drafted by a senior White House strategist and a speech last month by the Republican Party’s new chairman show that the political advantages are very much part of the calculation.
Bush’s plan to alter Social Security, for example, would allow younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into privately owned retirement accounts. GOP strategists hope it would also foster a new “investor class” that would vote Republican.
Republican support for free trade undermines labor unions which, like trial lawyers, are a bedrock of the Democratic Party, strategists say.
The president’s faith-based initiative, which encourages government funding for religious social service agencies, and his opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage are popular with socially conservative African Americans, who have for decades leaned Democratic but are increasingly viewed as potential GOP voters.
Many black parents, whose children attend struggling public schools, also agree with Republicans’ support for school vouchers. And Bush’s call to revamp the nation’s immigration laws makes the party more appealing to Latinos, another traditionally Democratic group.
“Are we doing it because it creates more Republicans? Or are we doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and by the way, it also happens to create more Republicans?” asked Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a frequent advisor to Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor. “It’s both.”
“Every one of the ideas for the most part has merits on its own, so ... they’re defensible,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative activist who plans to raise $10 million this year to advertise on behalf of Bush’s Social Security plans. “But I think, altogether, this was devised as a Karl Rove grand plan to cement in place a Republican governing coalition that could last for a generation or more.”
The pursuit of larger political goals by presidents is nothing new. Advisors to President Clinton once hoped his plan to overhaul healthcare delivery would draw voters to the Democratic Party.
But GOP strategists say the difference this time is the sheer scope of Bush’s political ambitions and his willingness to push sweeping ideological changes. The party is aiming for a 21st century political realignment comparable to the Democratic domination spurred by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bush often refers to his agenda as building an “ownership society,” a phrase that strategists compare in political terms to the New Deal: a package of programs that builds loyalty among voters for generations. While Roosevelt expanded the role of government in lifting seniors and workers out of poverty, Bush’s domestic agenda stresses the creation of personal wealth and individual responsibility, pure Republican ideology.
“FDR achieved for the Democrats two generations of support, in part because people thought he had done something that was real and permanent and improved their lives,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who also is close to White House strategists. “Handling Social Security correctly, so that we win the argument over personal savings accounts, I think puts the liberal Democrats in a permanent minority status for a long time.”
Bush and his aides rarely reveal the political underpinnings of their policy agenda. But their ambitions were evident last month, when a memo by a senior White House strategist concerning the emerging Social Security plan was leaked to the media.
The memo, written by Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, put the stakes in grand political terms, saying there would be enduring benefits for Republicans if the president’s plans succeeded and Democrats came out of the debate as the “party of the past.”
“For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country,” Wehner wrote.
In an interview, Ken Mehlman, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager and the new Republican National Committee chairman, called the politics of the Bush agenda an “added benefit” of a plan befitting a conservative president.
But Mehlman was more direct in a speech to party leaders on the eve of Bush’s second inauguration last month, rattling off pieces of the Bush agenda as a combined weapon to “broaden and deepen” the GOP.
By proposing that workers divert some of their payroll taxes into privately controlled investment accounts, he said, the party hopes to draw voters under 30 who are worried about retirement savings. Its message, Mehlman said, is: “The Republican Party has a plan for you.”
In nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court and lower courts, Mehlman said, the ensuing debate offers a chance to “deepen the GOP by registering to vote men and women who attend church every week.” The GOP’s efforts to grow come as the Democratic Party struggles to find its voice. The liberal and moderate wings of the party are at odds over how to fight Bush’s agenda without appearing obstructionist or overly negative, labels the GOP used effectively against Daschle and other Democrats in elections last year.
The one issue that has united Democrats is Social Security, with party strategists increasingly convinced that voters and beneficiaries are wary enough of the Bush plan to punish Republicans in future elections.
“If the Republicans can destroy Social Security, if they can privatize it out of existence, then they remove a key foundation stone for a philosophy of governance which says we’re all in it together,” said Robert B. Reich, former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration and now a professor at Brandeis University near Boston.
On the question of capping jury awards, trial lawyers are not likely to go down without a fight.
Plaintiff’s lawyers and law firms gave more than $30 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle, funding Democrats overwhelmingly more than Republicans, according to Dwight L. Morris & Associates, which analyzes campaign finance data.
“The Democrats in the Senate are in lock-step with the trial lawyers because they know” the lawyers are a major money source, said Thune, the Republican who defeated Daschle in South Dakota.
Referring to the goal of turning off the lawyers’ financial spigot, Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, said: “They want to destroy the legal rights of American families in order to take political action against the lawyers who represent people who have been injured through no fault of their own."The Bush agenda, said Norquist, crystallizes for voters the differences between the two major political parties, casting Republicans, he said, as the party of personal wealth and Democrats as the party of more government involvement.
“I think that 25 years from now, Americans will have more control over their retirement, more control over their healthcare and more control over where their kids go to school, and they will appreciate the party that gave them that,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute and an informal White House advisor.