King Karl

Along the spectrum of public-policy concerns, it’s hard to imagine two issues farther apart than Terri Schiavo and Social Security: The first is visceral, emotional, prone to craven and witless grandstanding; the second, so arid and bloodless it’s prone to inducing narcolepsy. But as political matters, the Schiavo imbroglio and Social Security share two things in common. On both, the distinctive mark of Karl Rove is scrawled with a flourish in Day-Glo. And on both, in the realm of public opinion, the Republican Party is getting its ass kicked from here to Sunday.

The numbers are pretty striking. On Social Security, polls show support for George W. Bush’s position mired at under 40 percent, with 58 percent of Americans saying that the more they learn about his plan the less they like it. Meanwhile, an ABC poll last week reported that, by a 63 to 28 percent margin, the public favors the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube—and that even Evangelicals are split down the middle on the question.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic reaction has been unalloyed glee—not least at the implication that Bush’s strategic supremo and deputy chief of staff may be fallible after all. Democrats in Congress charge that the Rove-ified Republicans’ Schiavo intervention unmasks the GOP as the party of big and intrusive government, while liberal strategists claim that the parade of blunders on Social Security suggests that the administration’s balding boy wonder has lost his populist touch. As New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg said to me the other day, “This is one of those times when you have to conclude that Rove isn’t as smart as people say.”

The Democrats’ jubilation is understandable, and even justified. But I also suspect it may turn out to be premature. Both Schiavo and Social Security are, for Rove, parts of a bigger puzzle: how to cement the fractious Republican coalition into a stable governing majority, one that advances the cause of a historic partisan realignment. Solving that puzzle inevitably poses knotty political challenges. But let’s remember, they’re the sort of challenges Democrats can only wish they had.

Not long ago, I had a chance to see Rove speak to an audience of conservative activists down in Washington. The speech was as revealing for what it left out as for what it included. Not once did Rove proclaim the importance of reducing the size and sphere of Washington’s purview. Not once did he echo Ronald Reagan’s famous line—which codified a fundamental verity of modern Republicanism—that “government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is our problem.” Instead, Rove rejected the party’s “reactionary” and “pessimistic” past, in which it stood idly by while “liberals were setting the pace of change and had the visionary goals.” Now, he went on, the GOP has seized the “mantle of idealism,” dedicating itself to “putting government on the side of progress and reform, modernization and greater freedom.”

Here in Blue America, Rove is typically caricatured as an ideologue, a hard-right-winger of the Cheney-Ashcroft genre. But as those who’ve closely followed his career will tell you, he is in fact a pragmatist, an apostle of patronage with a keen sense of factional politics and the spoils system. (In his formative years, he was, after all, a direct-mail marketer.) His strategy is to cast Republicans as the party of the future—or, as the Clinton campaign once expressed it, of “change versus more of the same”—while dispensing largesse to reward core constituencies and buy off marginal ones.

Examples of Rove’s Tip O’Neill–esque tactics during Bush’s first term are abundant. Together they compose the admin-istration’s embrace of big-government conservatism: tax cuts for the rich; subsidies for farmers, tariffs for the steel, shrimp, and lumber industries; the gargantuan Medicare prescription-drug entitlement for the drug companies and the elderly.

Given the zero-sum dynamics of Social Security, Rove’s encouragement of Bush to focus on it this year seems mystifying at first. Certainly it hasn’t worked out too well so far. “The discussion didn’t get off to a good start for them,” the Republican pollster Frank Luntz told me, “and there’s no indication it’s going to get better anytime soon.” Free Enterprise Fund head Stephen Moore added, “We thought the stars were in alignment, but it’s looking like we may have got our astronomy wrong.”

Yet as ugly as the Social Security debate has been for Bush and the GOP, it has served—perhaps intentionally—one salutary purpose: distracting Democrats while Republicans legislate, with ungodly brio, the rest of their agenda. Class-action reform, the bankruptcy bill, drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness: Republicans are teeing up pet legislation and knocking it down the fairway like Tiger Woods with a brisk wind at his back. “Without Social Security,” Grover Norquist, a Rove confidant and head of Americans for Tax Reform, told me, “this other stuff would’ve been the front line of battle. Instead, Democrats are holding us up on Social Security, while we get everything else we want done.”

Like Moore, Norquist concedes that Social Security reform (at least any version featuring private accounts) is unlikely to be passed this year. But this, he contends, would hardly be catastrophic for Republicans—and he has a point. “On Social Security, we’re playing on our field,” Norquist says. “What would a Democratic win be? The status quo! Not exactly exciting for the party of progressivism.”

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.

King Karl