The Big Idea

Karl Rove’s Dying Dream

So much for the permanent Republican majority.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up to get all of Slate’s free daily podcasts.

Karl Rove’s dream is dying. This is happening for reasons that have nothing to do with Valerie Plame.

Rove’s dream was to reshape American politics by creating a durable Republican majority. In the old days, Rove told anyone who would listen that his role model in this project was the legendary political boss Mark Hanna.

Hanna was the brain behind William McKinley’s political career in much the same way that Rove (“the architect”) is the brain behind Bush’s. McKinley was an affable, none-too-bright former congressman when Hanna helped elect him governor of Ohio. In 1896, Hanna raised an unprecedented amount of money and ran a sophisticated, hardball campaign that got McKinley to the White House. One could go on with the analogy: McKinley governed negligently in the interests of big business and went to war on flimsy evidence that Spain had blown up the USS Maine.

The key to McKinley’s political success was the alliance Hanna forged between industrialists like himself, who provided the cash, and workers, who provided the votes. In Rove’s alliance, the rich provide the cash, and religious conservatives provide the votes. Refuting the conventional wisdom that successful presidential candidates must lay claim to the political center, Bush has governed from the right and won re-election in 2004 with a “base-in,” rather than a “center-out,” strategy.

When Bush was re-elected, everyone hailed Rove’s strategy as a masterstroke. But would Rove’s protégé have eked out victories in 2000 and 2004 absent special circumstances, lame opponents, and good luck? Less than a year into Bush’s second term, the president’s approval rating is down around 40 percent. Many things have gone wrong for Bush, but the underlying problem is his relationship to the constituency that elected him. Bush’s debt to his big donors and to religious conservatives has boxed him in and pitted him against the national consensus on various issues. His extremism is undermining Rove’s realignment.

The problem has become clear with Bush’s difficulties in filling Sandra Day O’Connor’s slot on the Supreme Court. The Harriet Miers nomination was an attempt to satisfy both the militant conservative base and the eternally moderate American electorate. With the Alito nomination, Bush has acknowledged that splitting this difference is impossible. Faced with a choice, he has chosen, once again, to dance with the ones who brought him. But by appointing a superconservative, Bush risks propelling his increasingly beleaguered administration even further toward the right-hand margin—a place where his party cannot win future national elections.

Bush aims to be the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. But he has never understood the genius of Reagan’s method, which was to placate the religious right without giving in where it mattered. Reagan could proclaim his undying support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion without doing anything to endanger Roe v. Wade. (He was the one who nominated O’Connor, remember?) In the same way, Bill Clinton managed to keep liberal interest groups onboard without advancing their politically untenable wish list. But whether because he is less adroit or because he truly believes, Bush seems able to appease his base only by surrendering to its wishes. He has caved to conservatives on Terri Schiavo, on stem-cell research, on Social Security privatization, and on “intelligent design.” Now, most important, he is caving by at least creating the appearance that he is trying to get enough votes on the Supreme Court to reverse Roe.

Bush’s failure at base-pacification is not entirely his fault. The evangelicals, who were pragmatically willing to settle for half a loaf during the Reagan and Bush 41 years, now feel empowered, emboldened, and owed. James Dobson and Pat Robertson don’t understand that they would do their cause the most good by keeping their mouths shut and not scaring everyone witless. Conservatives of all kinds are in a militant mood heightened by their success in muscling Bush on Miers. They do not realize how their militancy alienates not just the left, but the swingers in the center whom Republicans need to win.

Rove is actually the second Republican realigner to stumble in this way in recent years. After the 1994 election, Newt Gingrich had his own visions of political sugarplums. Gingrich’s unsuccessful revolution was more libertarian and less moralistic. He thought the new Republican majority would coalesce around shrinking government (a theme Bush has soft-pedaled, preferring to undermine government through neglect and incompetence). Gingrich was also, frankly, a little nuts. But he failed because he made the same basic mistake that Rove did. Gingrich thought he’d won a mandate for radical change and enshrined a new governing majority. He forgot about the country’s nonideological majority, which likes Medicare, Social Security, national parks, and student loans. Republicans have retained control of Congress since Gingrich’s downfall, but only by reversing his austerity program and spending like a bunch of drunks.

Of course, the failure of Rove’s realignment doesn’t mean a new progressive era is at hand. After winning the White House back in 1896, Republicans held on to it until 1912, years after McKinley had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet and Hanna had died of typhoid fever. But Republicans retained the presidency on a basis that Hanna never anticipated. Theodore Roosevelt, a man Hanna feared and tried unsuccessfully to keep off the GOP ticket in 1900, was sworn in when McKinley died in 1901. Roosevelt emerged as a reformer and a trustbuster, taking on the corporate interests that had underwritten his predecessor’s career. The GOP retained power, but only by reversing the pro-business direction Hanna had set.

Like McKinley, Bush has a potential successor who would like to change his party’s direction. John McCain spouts reform and idolizes Teddy Roosevelt. And oh yes—he and Karl Rove loathe each other.