The greatest tool in the political arsenal of conservatives over the past 35 years has been the uncanny ability of Republican presidents to rip apart Democratic coalitions.
Richard Nixon borrowed a page from George Wallace and used racially charged talk about crime and school busing to pull Southern good-old-boy Democrats and urban white ethnics from the North into his "silent majority." Ronald Reagan used "culture wars" appeals on issues such as abortion and gay rights to turn white, working-class Catholics from Cleveland and Pittsburgh into "Reagan Democrats."
Elected initially in tightly contested races, Nixon and Reagan relied on millions of renegade Democrat voters to win overwhelming re-elections.
Now, George W. Bush is attempting to replicate the Nixon and Reagan strategies with an outreach to the leadership of key blue-collar unions and, by extension, to their millions of members. It is a smart strategy, and one to which the Bush White House is devoting serious attention and energy. It is, as well, a strategy that poses a significant threat to the long-term prospects of the "Teamsters and Turtles" coalition of trade unionists and environmentalists forged in the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.
That coalition played a big role in the spring 2000 lobbying against permanent most-favored nation trading status for China, and is poised to be a prime player in the fight against Bush's efforts to win the "fast track" negotiating authority he would use to build a "NAFTA-on-steroids" Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
The Bush administration may not be able to break up the Teamsters and Turtles on trade issues. But the president and his aides would like nothing more than to stir distrust between labor and environmentalists - especially if it helps Bush make inroads with blue-collar voters.
Karl Rove, Bush's top political aide, knows that if the Bush administration could neutralize a substantial section of labor's leadership - while at the same time improving its image with the membership of key unions - Bush would be well positioned to repeat the Nixon-Reagan scenario in his 2004 re-election campaign.
To that end, Rove, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney held a remarkably cordial meeting at the White House with almost three dozen top union leaders. Ostensibly, the session was organized to allow Cheney to explain the administration's energy policy to such unions as the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Plumbers, Carpenters, Laborers and Seafarers.
But this was no perfunctory policy briefing. As Phil Clapp, the savvy president of the National Environmental Trust, said, "The administration is trying to split the Democrats by wooing labor. It's quite an obvious strategy."
Obvious, yes. And logical, too, if you're Bush.
But if you're inclined to believe America might be better served by a one-term Bush presidency than a full eight years, this is a real problem. It can be countered with a bold alternative energy plan and an aggressive outreach to blue-collar families on health care, tax fairness, housing affordability and living wage issues.
So far, "bold" and "aggressive" have not been watchwords of the Democratic response to Bush.
The fundamental question is this: Will progressive trade unionists, environmentalists and Democrats recognize the threat to their coalitions - and counter it with a sound alternative energy plan and an aggressive outreach to blue-collar workers on core economic justice issues - any more quickly than did their forebears in the days of Nixon and Reagan?
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times