Under these conditions, the fabled “swing voter” has become more and more of a chimera, and the real challenge for strategists like Rove is to make the true-believing base madder and madder. And this means culture war, in ever-escalating registers. Not only do issues like abortion, gay marriage, and creationism appeal to blue-collar voters; they are all proxies for class anger, ways for Republicans to rage against “elites” without actually talking about, you know, elites—i.e., the people who fund the Republican Party.
Consider, for example, the career of Grover Norquist, the legendary crusader against government, whom I encountered several times during convention week. Norquist is reported to have once told a fellow graduate of Harvard, “For 40 years, we fought a two-front war against the Soviet Union and statism. Now we can turn all our time and energy to crushing you.” Or consider the anti-Kerry booklet published by David Keene’s organization, which I had thrust into my hand the first day of the convention. It reminds us of the original treason of the high-born, back in the sixties: “Like many children of affluent parents, John Kerry joined the so-called New Left in its relentless attack on America.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard the argument yourself many times. Harvard hates America. So does Yale. The bobos have strapped America into the backseat of their Volvo and are force-feeding it lattes until it agrees to speak French and subsist solely on Zabar’s-bought bean sprouts for the rest of its natural-born days.
I mock, but I do not deny that the culture war against elites makes for a powerful political narrative. It resonates across the AM dial; it animates its very own cable news network; and if George Bush wins this fall, it will be his abilities with this form of faux-folksy populism that we will have to thank.
But here, too, Republicans must engage in a delicate balancing act. While blue-collar voters are roped in with tantalizing promises of war on the rich people’s fancy colleges, the Republicans have to court their real base in the manner to which it is accustomed. Hence the party in honor of California representative David Dreier at Cartier on Fifth Avenue, and all the pinstriped partygoers emerging into traffic clutching little red bags of gifts. Hence Grover Norquist’s opulent fête at—get this—the New York Yacht Club, in which anti-tax literature was distributed among lavishly carved furnishings and reminders of the nautical affectations of the robber-baron days, when taxes were low, labor was cheap, and all was right with the world. And hence the inscription on the wall of domed-and-chandeliered Gotham Hall, which I wrote down while the roster of conservative superstars took turns doing their populist act for Michael Reagan, no doubt deploring the liberal elites’ cars and the liberal elites’ manners and the liberal elites’ book-learning.
“Having little, you can not risk loss. Having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”