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Rove’s Troubles Expose Strategic Drawbacks of a United Front

The testimonials to Karl Rove that flowed from Republicans great and small last week were, above all, a testament to the kind of party that he and President Bush have constructed.

For most of American history, the two major political parties have been ideologically ramshackle coalitions renowned for their resistance to central direction. Bush, with Rove as the “architect,” has constructed a party that expects, and enforces, a heightened level of loyalty more commonly found in a parliamentary system. In Rove’s GOP, preserving party unity has become the prime directive.

The reaction to Rove’s troubles, ironically, testifies to his success.

Privately, a few Republicans seem concerned that Rove, whether or not he is charged with a crime, could become a distraction after the revelations that he told a reporter that the wife of administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV worked for the CIA.

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But in public, Republicans lined up last week to defend Rove as if they were constructing a human shield. Reporters had their pick of party leaders denouncing Democrats, the media and Wilson.

Partly that reflected the conviction among most GOP leaders that the disclosures so far hadn’t damaged Rove too badly. Just as important may have been the powerful instinct of the GOP under Bush and Rove to close ranks under pressure -- rather than fragmenting the way Democrats often did during President Clinton’s time in office.

Republicans haven’t achieved perfect agreement on all issues under Bush. Resistance from Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) derailed White House hopes of a smooth confirmation for John R. Bolton, Bush’s choice as United Nations ambassador. Resistance from Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) has blocked GOP leaders from advancing a Social Security restructuring plan from the Senate Finance Committee. Resistance from seven GOP moderates and mavericks thwarted the drive by party leaders for a showdown vote on banning the filibuster against judicial nominees.

Yet the GOP solidarity evident over Rove last week has been much more common during Bush’s presidency. Congressional Republicans are voting together more than congressional Democrats did under Clinton -- and even more than congressional Republicans did under President Reagan. Despite grumbling from some GOP moderates, the party has mostly responded to the ethical allegations swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) with the same locked-arm defiance it has demonstrated with Rove.

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By now, the benefits of this approach for Bush and congressional Republicans are familiar. By minimizing GOP defections, Bush has passed an ambitious agenda despite narrow congressional majorities and meager support from Democrats on his top priorities.

Bush’s support from rank-and-file Republicans has rarely dipped below 90% in polls. Massive turnout from that base was the single most critical factor in his November reelection. And voters who poured out for Bush helped the GOP capture Democratic Senate seats in six states the president carried.

But the drive for party unity has always carried costs too, and they seem to be growing in Bush’s second term.

By asking so few tough questions of Rove -- and DeLay -- congressional Republicans may be increasing their vulnerability to Democratic charges that the GOP is abusing its unified control over government to protect its own.

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“They really have become so arrogant that they don’t think the rules apply to them,” Democratic consultant Joe Lockhart says -- an argument likely to headline many campaigns by Democrats next year.

The emphasis on party cohesion also constricts Bush’s maneuverability on issues. Bush and Rove have achieved such overwhelming agreement in part by advancing an agenda that, on most major decisions, responds to the demands of the GOP’s hard-core supporters. But in pursuing such an ideologically aggressive course, Republicans risk antagonizing more moderate voters.

Indeed, the micro- and macro-politics of Rove’s vision have often seemed at odds. With one hand, he has encouraged innovative efforts to court new voters, particularly African Americans and Latinos. With the other, he has promoted an agenda that polarizes the electorate and often provokes resistance from many voters, including minorities, outside of the GOP’s core conservative coalition.

Bush slightly lost ground among independent voters in 2004 compared with 2000, although doubts about his Democratic foe, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, helped the president hold the erosion to a level he could survive. This year, without that contrast to bolster him, Bush’s approval rating among independent voters has rarely peeked much above 40%.

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For the Republican Congress, this year’s trends are more ominous. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, the approval rating for Congress fell to 28%, with 55% disapproving. Numbers just a bit lower were the last poll figures congressional Democrats saw before the GOP’s 1994 tidal wave swept them from the majority in the House and Senate.

Bush and congressional Republicans face a fundamental choice on how to rebuild toward the 2006 election. One approach would pursue more deals with Democrats to court moderate voters who recoil from partisan conflict. The other would detonate sharp ideological disputes in the hope of generating a big conservative-base turnout to overwhelm discontent in the center.

Last week’s rallying around Rove sends a clear signal that most in the GOP still prefer a party that excites its base and gives no ground to critics. Revelations about Rove’s role in the CIA controversy more damaging than those he’s faced so far might diminish the party’s willingness to defend him personally. But whatever happens to the architect, Republicans seem wedded to his combative strategy for maintaining power.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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