The speech that will define U.S. politics throughout 2006 has already been given.
The audience was the Republican National Committee and the date was January 19. The speechmaker was Karl Rove, top political adviser to President George Bush.
Rove laid out the political strategy that will shape the fight for U.S. public opinion, the midterm elections, and the terrain for all social struggles in 2006. The cornerstone of this strategy is once again “You Are With Us or You Are With the Terrorists.”
This battle plan is a direct challenge not simply to the Democrats, but to antiwar activists and every progressive and grassroots movement. The responsibility falls squarely on us to meet Rove head on with an unequivocal challenge to the war in Iraq and to the “war on terror” justification for spying, torture, and racist injustice from the Gulf Coast to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rove’s speech was front-page news in the New York Times Jan. 20:
“Rove…left little doubt that once again–as has been the case in both national elections since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks–he was intent on making national security the pre-eminent issue in 2006….He lacerated Democrats for what he described as their ‘cut and run’ policy on Iraq, for blocking a renewal of the broad antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, and for challenging the legality of the administration's widespread use of warrantless wiretaps in the face of widespread criticism.
"The United States faces a ruthless enemy, and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in," Mr. Rove said. "President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."
Rove’s words are not individual opinions. They are marching orders with the full power of the White House behind them. The official Republican Party apparatus of political operatives, media flacks, multi-millionaire donors, ambitious House and Senate candidates and more are already saluting and marching to this tune. Rove’s “unofficial” army of right-wing talk show hosts, dirty tricksters and religious zealots are already pummeling away.
The last year hasn’t gone well for Bush in public opinion. A majority now disapproves of his policy in Iraq. The President’s overall approval ratings have plummeted to a dismal 40 percent. Even some Republicans are critical of Bush’s claim that he can spy on any U.S. citizen without a warrant and disquiet about the situation in Iraq.
Some have speculated that the Republicans might therefore shy away from a focus on Iraq and the spying issue in 2006.
But the White House's response to adversity has never been to soften its message or “move toward the center.” It is to go on the offensive. Rove believes Bush won the 2004 election by painting his opponent as “soft on terrorism.” With Republicans vulnerable in 2006, this means Attack and Smear–and not just on electoral terrain–will be a daily fact of life.
Nothing should be ruled out as too low a blow. A right-wing campaign has already begun spreading swift-boat style lies about Vietnam War veteran turned Iraq war critic John Murtha. The extreme right is already chanting the mantra that Osama Bin Laden equals Howard Dean equals Michael Moore. A kind of 21st century McCarthyism is here right now. If Rove has his way, terrorist baiting will become a powerful and lasting weapon to crush all opposition.
Racism is an integral part of Rove’s “us against them” appeal. His implicit “us” is “White America.” His most explicitly demonized “them” are Arabs and Muslims. But with language filling right-wing airwaves and filtering steadily into mainstream discourse about “hordes coming across the border” and “protecting our way of life,” a thinly coded ideological assault on all peoples of color is part of the mix.
The immediate goal of this 2006 crusade is to protect Republican majorities in the Senate and House. But Rove’s plan has tremendous consequences beyond the electoral arena.
It is crafted to bolster and harden Bush’s policy of permanent occupation in Iraq. It is designed to increase the rightwing’s power in every arena of struggle over policy, resources, and rights. It is a club to justify repression against, and denial of resources to, every oppressed community and progressive movement, from Gulf Coast victims of Katrina and the immigrant communities that are now in Republican gunsights, to trade unions, the women’s and lesbian/gay movements, and human rights and civil liberties organizations.
Headway for Rove’s crusade means curtailed democratic rights and massive cuts in social programs. His idea is not just to win one more election. He and Bush aim to solidify rightwing control over all branches of government for a generation. September 11, 2001 didn’t just give the right an opening to justify new imperial adventures abroad. Domestically Rove and Co. think they can use 9/11 as a battering ram to prevent opposition movements from gaining traction in the voting booths or in the streets for decades to come.
Meet Polarization Head-On
Rove can be stopped this time around. The administration’s failures in Iraq and in response to Katrina, its “culture of corruption” scandals, and much more have taken their toll on public opinion. Divisions have opened up within the Republican Party apparatus and the party’s social base.
But beating back Rove requires his “war on terror trumps everything” message to be confronted head on. Only a hard-hitting “No!” to continuing the occupation of Iraq and to using “national security” as a cover for empire-building abroad and reaction at home will succeed. We need an across-the board challenge to the entire “culture of fear” framework with its relentless use of allegedly permanent enemies to silence all opposition.
Far more is at stake than the final tally in 2006 Congressional contests, important as that is. Whether or not the White House is confronted and beaten back on the phony "war on terror" will shape the foreign and domestic policies pursued by whichever party is in office. It will determine which side of the political spectrum has initiative and self-confidence, and whether or not grassroots movements have space to organize.
There are a growing number of Democratic Party candidates who are now willing, at least when pressed from below, to take Bush on regarding Iraq and his imperial appropriation of executive power. But most top figures–Hillary Clinton leading the pack–either duck the fight or are nearly as backward as Bush regarding the pivot question of Iraq. No effective resistance to Rove’s reactionary juggernaut will come from this quarter.
The responsibility to meet Rove’s polarization head on falls squarely on the antiwar movement and all grassroots and progressive activists. The antiwar movement is in the direct line of fire. Loudly and militantly, in the streets and the media, inside town halls and outside military recruitment centers, in actions on the third anniversary of the Iraq war and mobilizations throughout the year, we need to anchor the 2006 fightback.
Activists whose main work is focused in other arenas will also play an indispensable role. Linking the antiwar/anti-repression pivot to every other part of the progressive agenda is not just a “Good Thing,” but crucial for political survival.
If we jump start our efforts and go all-out for the next year, we can stop Karl Rove from being the person able to give the defining political speech of 2007 and 2008.
Max Elbaum is a staff member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras , a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.