The Real War

Of all the analysis and punditry that gushed forth from Madison Square Garden during the GOP convention last week, one original thought stood out. It came courtesy of David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, one of the most influential of the organizations that have moved the Republican Party to the right over the past 30 years. Keene fell into a chat with one of my colleagues and me, and we asked him why the initial days of the convention had featured so many moderate Republicans during prime time. He explained the dilemma the undecided electorate posed to GOP strategists. I do not mean this in the usual way—that Republicans put on a happy face in order to win over the swing voters, of whom there are fewer and fewer every year. No. According to Keene, the key to victory is exactly the opposite strategy, mobilizing the believers, the already committed. That is the “gold mine,” he explained: “the voters already for your candidate but who don’t vote.”

The role of the party’s well-televised moderates, then, was not to make Republicans out of the undecideds but to undermine the other party’s efforts to mobilize its base. Republicans want “to make the other guy’s people more comfortable and less hot,” Keene says, “so they won’t be so motivated.” The role of the party’s moderates is not as legislators in their own right, then, but as a sort of political tranquilizer. Don’t be frightened, their speeches tell us. Republicans won’t hurt you. Nothing to worry about here. Go back to sleep.

That was the GOP convention as it was beamed to the world on TV, the red-meat performances of Dick Cheney et al. notwithstanding. The second element of the strategy, of course, is to fire up the true believers, the fundamentalists and government haters and taxation-is-theft gang who make up the rank and file. As Keene pointed out to me, this can sometimes make for “schizophrenia” in campaigns, with one part of the message actively contradicting the other. But the party’s base tolerates the happy-moderate talk at convention time, since there is no doubt about which message will linger, and which will disappear again once the election is over.

The difference between this strategy and the familiar, desperate centrism of the Democrats may sound like a slight one, but in practice the two approaches could not be more distinct. For Democrats, or at least for the kind of Democrats one meets in Washington, the “triangulation” and all the endless noodling about the virtues of “the center” are not empty talk but the realest sort of hardheaded strategy. Democrats don’t so much mobilize their working-class base as tell them, repeatedly and in terms impossible to misunderstand, to kiss off. Then, suffering defeat after defeat, they wonder dourly about their “purpose,” hold panel discussions to brainstorm the new role they will play in the future or to help them search for some new element of the electorate that they can speak for and that will maybe get them to 51 percent.

This is why, for all its recent infighting, today’s Republican Party strikes me as an outfit that knows what it wants and is going about getting it. It’s going to roll back the twentieth century, return the world to the hard-rock verities of yore, crush the welfare state, and get back to that good Old Deal. For Republicans, this purpose comes first, regardless of how it “polls” or how “centrist” it is or whether NASCAR dads and soccer moms agree with it. Indeed, majorities are just a means to this end. They don’t need 51 percent; they just need 10 or 15 or even 20 percent to stay home on November 2.

Stripped of its adornments, the core Republican strategy reduces to a simple formula: It’s all about the culture war. Republicans may plan to further deregulate industry, privatize Social Security, and crack down on overtime pay, but these are not issues with a mass following; what gets out the vote for the GOP is the sense of betrayal and frustration felt by the angry millions every time they turn on the TV or open the newspaper.

The party where I spoke to Keene is a case in point. The bash was thrown at Gotham Hall, a cavernous former bank building that, with all its columns and its coffered, gilded ceiling, put one in mind of the Pantheon in Rome. The chandelier was so large and so Gothic it could comfortably have served as a pulpit in a medieval church. Numerous bars dispensed the obligatory Norwegian water, Belgian beer, and single-malt Scotch. And yet the nominal occasion for the party was a special episode of Michael Reagan’s conservative talk-radio program; the adopted son of the former president—at one point he took pains to assure the audience that he was no moderate like his brother—sat perched on a balcony high above the stage while other distinctly non-moderate celebrities (I spotted J. C. Watts and the skeletal Ann Coulter, among others) lined up to vent their special, personalized vox-pop outrage for him like battleships going through the Panama Canal.

“Today’s Republican Party is an outfit that knows what it wants and knows how to get it.”

While the assembled guests paid homage to the power of talk radio, a series of conservative leaders took the stage and exhorted their colleagues to get out the vote back in their home states. J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of State, insisted that there must be “no confusion” about the president’s “conservative values,” that a big turnout by the rank and file back in Ohio “will give [Bush] the presidency.”

Before long, Karl Rove, beaming in a blue shirt and a glowing orange tie, stepped to the microphone to ensure that no such confusion existed. “We’re right, and they’re wrong,” he thundered. Listing the issues on which this state of perfect moral clarity existed, he mentioned “marriage,” i.e., gay marriage; the appointment of judges; and “the Second Amendment.” (I was reminded how hallucinatory the culture wars sometimes are when Rove’s invocation of this last caused a British visitor standing near me to ask someone to explain this issue, as he hadn’t heard about the Democrats trying to repeal any parts of the Constitution.) We have “31 days to get ’em all registered,” Rove declared, and “32 days to get ’em out!”

This was the Karl Rove you don’t see in the smiling White House photo ops. This, rather, was the man recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal describing this year’s contest, contrary to the conventional wisdom duly echoed among network anchorbots, as a “mobilization election.” As Journal reporters Jackie Calmes and John Harwood explained, national demographic trends are complicating a majoritarian GOP strategy. Traditionally liberal-leaning blocs of voters, such as Hispanics and the young, loom larger in the voting ranks this year than they did in 2000. And seniors, whom the Republicans had counted on winning over, are not behaving as expected in the wake of the GOP-sponsored Medicare-reform law.

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.”

The Real War