The President's Brain is Missing

Karl Rove, who announced his resignation last week as President George Bush's political and domestic policy consigliere, was always a man on a mission: he wanted to be the man who engineered a Republican realignment of American politics.

By their very nature, genuine realignments - the process by which political parties win and maintain a dominant majority of voters over several decades - are rare in the US. The classic example is that of 1932-36, when the combination of the Great Depression and Franklin D Roosevelt dispatched the previously ascendant laissez-faire Republicans to the political hinterlands and established a period of Democratic dominance that lasted until 1968, when the New Deal coalition was sundered by issues of race, the Vietnam War, and cultural upheaval.

When Republicans think realignment, though, they hark back to 1896 when, confronted by the populist challenge of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the Republicans assembled a coalition of nouveau riche industrialists and North-eastern and mid-Western Protestant workers and farmers that was to keep them in power until the Depression.

As early as the beginning stages of Bush's first run for the White House in 1999, Rove had realignment on the brain, and saw himself as Hanna's second coming. He was, in fact, the fourth prominent right-wing Republican who saw realignment lurking just around the corner. The first, William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard warned Republicans against cutting any deal with President Clinton that would set up national healthcare, for to do so would cement voters ties to government and the Democrats, as had happened in the 1930s.

Kristol's analysis served as a springboard for the theories, if they may be called such, of the Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the conservative activist Grover Norquist, who has been convening weekly meetings of right-wing lobbyists and leaders in Washington for the past 15 years. From the mid-Nineties, Gingrich and Norquist argued that the passage of the United States to an information-age superpower, from a nation of employees to a nation of entrepreneurs, meant that the market would supplant the government as the source of Americans' security, and that if the Republicans championed that cause - privatising social security and Medicare, for instance - they would bring about a realignment as fundamental, and as rooted in economic realities, as Hanna's or FDR's.

These were the ideas that fired the imaginations of Bush and Rove. Privatising social security was a theme on which Bush campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress a quarter-century ago - a campaign on which Rove, then a young Republican operative, offered his advice. By the time Bush reached the White House, rolling back the New Deal was at the centre of their mental tapestry. The Republican Party had taken a quantum leap rightward during the 1990s, a period when the Democrats held the White House and when, for the first time, the Republican's congressional leaders all came from anti-statist South.

The goals of Rove the realigner and Rove the campaign strategist didn't always mesh, however, although the campaign strategist had to succeed for there to be any prospect of realignment.

As a campaign strategist, Rove embraced the idea, shortly after Bush's 2000 victory, that America had an all-but-unbridgeable partisan rift, and that he would try to win votes at election time and in Congress by building support among right-wing Republicans and eking out 51 per cent victories. The 9/11 attacks created the possibility that Bush could govern with a broad, bipartisan coalition. But instead, Bush, Rove and Vice-President Dick Cheney concluded that they could wage an aggressive foreign policy and depict Democrats as dissidents whose loyalty to their country was questionable. They began by forcing a congressional vote on authorising war in Iraq shortly before the 2002 election. This line of attack, which informed countless campaigns the Republicans waged against Democratic members of the House and Senate, poisoned national politics, and helped the Republicans win narrow victories in 2002 and 2004.

So, too, did the politicisation of the government bureaucracy. Since the Democrats retook Congress in 2006 and began investigating the Bush administration, they have turned up numerous instances of the subordination of governmental agencies to narrow political ends. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been trying to compel Rove's testimony in the matter of nine discharged federal prosecutors, whose sin seems to have been their unwillingness to file spurious voter fraud cases that the administration hoped would lead the curtailment of various Democratic voter registration campaigns, particularly in minority communities. The paper and email trail in the case leads to Rove, but he has thus far avoided testifying.

After Bush's 2004 re-election, Rove's formal portfolio grew from politics to all domestic policy. Bush and he had two great priorities for their second term: privatising social security and reforming immigration law to enable undocumented immigrants, chiefly from Mexico and Central America, to attain legal status. The imperative for these changes were purely political; there was no popular clamour for either.

Yet, both were essential if realignment were to be achieved from on high. The former would end Americans' reliance on a successful government programme; the latter would endear Republicans to Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the body politic. Both were exquisitely mistimed. Bush and Rove did not realise that the economic changes they had celebrated actually produced widespread insecurity among the American people.

The realisation of the neo-liberal vision - the outsourcing of jobs, the end of stable employment relationships, the abandonment by employers of healthcare coverage and pensions for their workers, the prolonged stagnation of wages - made this the worst possible time to dismantle the government's retirement programme. The openness of the US economy to the downsides of globalisation helped engender a nativism, particularly in Republican ranks, that made this a terrible time to reform immigration as well.

Both initiatives were stillborn. And such abject failures in domestic policy, when compounded by such other dAf(c)bAfAC/cles as the government's failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina and the war of the president's choosing in Iraq, led to a decisive Democratic victory in 2006. Americans who call themselves Democrats now exceed those who call themselves Republicans by roughly 15 per cent; young people are rejecting Rove's party by huge margins; and Republican prospects in the 2008 elections look dire.

So Rove will not be remembered as the man who brought a Republican realignment. The only question is whether he will have hastened a Democratic one.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of 'The American Prospect' and a columnist on 'The Washington Post'

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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