We don’t know yet who will win or by what margin, but we know one thing for certain: This election represents the repudiation of Karl Rove and his play-to-the-base strategy.
There was always something dicey about stoking the fires of hyperpartisanship as a campaign and governing strategy, treating 51-49 victories as ideological mandates instead of an obligation to form broader and more durable coalitions.
Now we have the data to judge the results: a president who tried to unite his party at the expense of uniting the nation and failed to do both, repudiated by both candidates running to succeed him. Even John McCain admits to visitors at his Web site homepage, “the last eight years haven’t worked very well, have they?”
It’s an unprecedented condemnation of the president’s politics as well as the effectiveness of his governance.
If Obama wins this election, especially by a large margin, there is going to be a lot of talk about how the Obama team has rewritten the rules of modern politics. But the real question may be whether the rules were wrong all along.
Take a look back at the two presidential victories engineered by “the Architect.” In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote after leading in the polls for months, ultimately winning the electoral vote because of a contested 537-vote margin in Florida. In 2004, he won reelection with 51.3 percent of the popular vote — the lowest percent of any victorious Republican incumbent in American history. The narrow margins of these victories are signs of strategic weakness, not strength.
Rove is a smart man and a student of history. He knows that a Republican president in wartime should be able to win reelection almost without campaigning. Richard Nixon won 49 states in a similar circumstance, and he did not have Bush’s engaging personality, a massive domestic attack that briefly united the nation or a stiff patrician opposition candidate like John Kerry.
Or reach for a more immediate parallel: Bill Clinton closed out his administration with a job approval rating in the mid-60s, even after being impeached — nearly three times as high as President Bush’s recent record low of 22 percent. That was not a measure of Americans’ approval for Clinton’s personal behavior, but it was a clear endorsement of his centrist policies.
In this campaign, the two candidates who tried to ape Rove’s strategy most closely — Mitt Romney on the right and John Edwards on the left — fashioned hasty political facelifts, pandered to the base, spent enormous amounts of money and failed. Even in the essentially rigged system of closed partisan primaries, the play-to-the-base method wasn’t working. The American people wanted something less cynical and divisive.
Barack Obama and John McCain both ran in opposition to the polarizing establishment of their two parties, preaching the need to reach across the red-state and blue-state divide. They called upon Republicans, Democrats and Independents to join their cause to restore a new solutions-oriented civility to our politics.
Ironically, this had been McCain’s riff back in the 2000 campaign, when he earned the admiration of centrists and Independents everywhere while running into Rove’s buzz saw. McCain detested the divisive and dishonorable personal attacks deployed against him in the South Carolina primary. The right-wing radio and evangelical base that Rove mobilized against McCain returned the favor, hating the Arizona senator for his independence and bipartisan instincts. McCain won the 2008 nomination anyway, without their support — a win that was in itself a repudiation of the world according to Karl Rove.
The McCain campaign’s mistake came in the transition to the general election, when it became surrounded by Republican operatives who had learned their trade from Rove. The candidate was lurched from center to right and back, with messaging more tactical than strategic, a tone more sarcastic than substantive. And when the McCain campaign tried to deploy the Rovian techniques he had deplored in years past, they not only failed to stick, but they even provoked a backlash among the Independent voters who had long been his core constituency.
In effect, John McCain has been defeated by Karl Rove twice — because he’s been tarred by the Bush brush and even if McCain pulls off a narrow upset win, his ability to unite the country will be damaged from Day One.
Obama took aim at Rove’s red-state/blue-state tactics early on, making them a staple his stump speech appeal to voters before the Iowa caucus, saying “we can’t afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington that’s about scoring political points instead of solving problems; that’s about tearing your opponents down instead of lifting this country up. … We have the chance to build a new majority of not just Democrats, but Independents and Republicans. …We can change the electoral math that’s been all about division and make it about addition.”
In some ways, the key to Obama’s campaign has been about inspiring an inclusive crusade to overturn Rove’s play-to-the-base politics, and. as a result, he may be on the road to a victory with margins unseen by President Bush or the Democratic Party since Lyndon Johnson.
Of course, if there is a Democratic landslide, some liberals will be tempted to interpret it as an ideological mandate, spending wildly and fueling their own excesses. A President Obama will need to see that his administration’s record matches his postpartisan rhetoric. And if the Republicans go into the wilderness, count the hours until some social conservative commentator comes up with the self-serving assessment that John McCain failed because he was not conservative enough. That is precisely the wrong lesson to learn from this era and this election.
The lesson is that narrow hyperpartisan appeals are not enough to govern effectively or representatively in the 21st century. Ignoring the center is a sure path to political isolation. And dividing the American people in order to conquer them in campaigns is morally and practically bankrupt. Karl Rove’s play-to-the-base strategy has been exposed as unethical and unwise.