More important, although Democrats, in my view, have been right as a matter both of principle and politics to fight Bush on Social Security, their stance leaves them open to attack. “Democrats did something really stupid by saying there’s not a problem,” argues Luntz. “They damaged their credibility and made themselves the party of No.” Or, as Rove put it in his speech, “they’re attempting to block reform,” he said. “The risk is that they’ll appear to be obstructionist, oppositional, and wedded to the past instead of the future—and that’s not a good place to be in American politics.”
To Rove’s constituency-centric way of thinking, Social Security reform is a way of satisfying the party’s laissez-faire purists. It’s also a way of reaching out to young voters, especially in the West. And while failure would be a setback for Bush, the damage, I think, would be less dramatic than people now assume. As long as the economy is humming and foreign policy ticking along, the main threat to Bush, lame-duckism, will be minimized by the desire of congressional Republicans, especially those planning a presidential run, to stay on his good side—and also on Rove’s. Indeed, that Rove has left open the possibility of his involvement in 2008 benefits Bush mightily. “The Rove primary,” one Hill Republican says, “is very much under way up here.”
The truth of that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who caught a nauseating glimpse of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s performance in the Schiavo affair. In Washington, Frist is universally seen as a wholly owned subsidiary of Rove’s White House operation. In the Schiavo controversy, both men saw an opportunity to score points with the religious right—causing Frist, a licensed physician, mind you, to diagnose Schiavo by a videotape, a detour into telemedicine that would have been funny if it weren’t so sad, and Rove to advise Bush to fly back to Washington to play his role in the theatre macabre.
“The Rove primary,” says one Capitol Hill Republican, “is very much under way up here.”
For Rove, the need to throw a bone to Christian conservatives has been apparent since January, when he received a letter from a clutch of A-list Evangelicals (James Dobson, Donald Wildmon, etc.) complaining about the energy Bush was devoting to . . . Social Security. “Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage?” the letter asked pointedly.
Compared with gay marriage, the Schiavo affair offered Rove a fairly simple means of showing fealty to the religious right. It also fit snugly into a larger political schema. That the courts (bound by, you know, the rule of law) would refuse to restore Schiavo’s feeding tube was all but inevitable. And that, in turn, was bound to feed the ire of the right toward “liberal judges,” thus stoking the flames in the looming battle in the Senate over the so-called nuclear option to stop Democratic judicial filibusters—which Rove badly wants to detonate.
The alleged risks to Republicans of cozying up excessively to the Christian right are so well rehearsed it hurts my head to list them here: the alienation of swing voters, intra-party fratricide between social conservatives and libertarians, blah blah blah. The problem with this analysis can be simply stated: the 2004 election, in which swing voters all but disappeared, and Evangelicals, though far from delivering the White House to Bush, surely didn’t do him any harm.
For more than a decade, wishful liberals have forecast the impending collapse of the Republican coalition thanks to its internal conflicts. (I myself once wrote a long piece titled, ahem, “The GOP Big Tent Is Full of Holes.”) What all of us seem to forget is that tensions and strains are an inevitable feature within any majority political party. We forget that, for several decades, Democrats somehow found room to accommodate ideologies ranging from northern quasi-socialist to southern segregationist. The accommodation wasn’t always pretty, but neither was it terminally unstable.
In keeping the various breeds of elephant inside the Republican tent, Rove has his hands full. But while he may not qualify as a political Einstein—his tactics often crude (and even thuggish), his strategies susceptible to overreach—there’s no gainsaying his achievements or overstating his ambitions. Today Rove (whom Bush has dubbed “The Architect”) wields more power than any party operative since his hero Mark Hanna a century ago. If the GOP gains further ground in 2006, Rove’s influence will only grow. And if a Rove-guided Republican takes the White House in 2008 . . . well, maybe we better not go there. The Rove primary is unsettling enough; a Grand Rove Party would border on terrifying.