Friday, May 12, 2006

Karl Rove, Fear, Catatonia, and Celine Dion

Okay, let's start with the big news. Tragedy struck this week when French-Canadian pop singer Celine Dion wandered into a wax museum and came face-to-face with a dummy figure of herself. Within seconds, she became transfixed and unable to tell whether she was the real Celine or the dummy. Witnesses report she managed to gasp "so . . . lifelike" before falling into a persistent vegetative state. The Canadian Parliament not only refused to enact special legislation to keep her hooked up to life support but urged the wax figure to record a new album, saying they bet its voice would sound fuller and more human than Celine's own.

Now on to lesser things. That rogue of a rover, Karl Rove, is still lurking ...expand out there in the shadows and I am still concerned about it for Democrats. As I originally worried in a post back on April 20, Rove's relinquishment of his White House policy duties might seem like a sign of Republican weakness but it would free him to do the thing he does best – politics.

Various Democratic politicos within The Fray dismissed my concerns. If Rove could not improve the image of Bush or the GOP while it was a part-time job for him throughout 2005, they argued, what have Dems to fear from him now in a full-time mode? I attempted to answer these assessments in an April 24 post. In it, I explained –

GOP politics has long been about negative campaigning, especially when things get close and tough. Rove is the undisputed master at creating climates of fear and rallying those in fear to turn out and vote for Republicans, not so much as the Party that will make their fondest wishes come true but as the only Party that can save them from their worst nightmares.

Rove can do that in the upcoming Congressional elections and he can do it largely in the background. He does not even necessarily have to reverse the table on national issues where Republicans are currently weak. He need only find one or two issues of local interest that he can exploit against the Democratic candidate and his work is done.
A story on Wednesday from MSNBC correspondent Howard Fineman suggested that is more or less exactly what Rove had intended to do. However, even further Bush slippage in the polls has convinced him that a larger, more aggressive attack is needed than snipping from the undergrowth. So, in addition to localizing the attack on specific candidates, Rove now wants to pair that with a national message.

Once again, the theme here is not touting President Bush or the Republican-led Congress but rather a negative campaign painting a nightmarish picture of what our government and country would look like with Democrats in control again. Rove even thinks he has two magic words to center the whole assault around – President Hillary.

I can already hear the groans of those who disagreed with me earlier that this is clearly a wild, last-ditch attempt by a clearly weak and increasingly desperate Republican Party – an attempt to sell a wax dummy as a real threat. Well, maybe, but consider exactly why so many people are upset with the President these days. Karl Rove has.

On top of his already low approval ratings, the Gallup polling organization has recorded a thirteen point drop in Republican support for Bush in the past couple of weeks. No doubt $3 per gallon gasoline has something to do with this but most core conservatives cite other reasons, such as out-of-control spending, failure to "toughen up" immigration laws, failure to restrict same-sex marriage, bribery and other political corruption, and – oh, yeah – lack of progress in prosecuting the war in Iraq.

The Pew Research Center, another leading polling group, said it was struck by the growing number of conservatives who "don't see Bush as one of them" anymore. The head of the conservative Club for Growth echoes that sentiment, saying, "The problem in my mind and the only way to explain the very significant erosion is just a disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government."

So for many (former) Bush supporters, both social conservatives and even some moderate who vote conservatively on certain issues, the problem is not that the President has gone too far but that he hasn't gone far enough. Those folks may be quite receptive to Rove's national message of Democrats as the Party of tax increases, gay marriage, secularism and military weakness.

That really is the crux of the matter. Democrats feel very confident that the public has lost trust in Bush. Yet that is not the same as building trust in them. To that end, "President Hilary" may be more damning than many believe.

In fairness, no less an impressive political guru as James Carville thinks voters will break the other way. It is true, he says, that Hilary Clinton lacks the charisma of husband Bill or even George W. Bush. But after first a glib slickster and then a folksy ideologue, voters may be getting tired of big ideas and looking for a little practical realism. That is Hilary Clinton's strongpoint. Carville also notes that people are increasingly turned off by the current Administration's hostility to shared sacrifice. Hillary, on the other hand, is the queen of the "it takes a village" philosophy.

Current polls show an impressive fifty-five percent of voters preferring Democratic control of Congress and government in general. But as soon as you move from the general to the specific, those numbers plummet. Hillary Clinton's approval ratings are only thirty-four percent. Compare that to twenty-eight and twenty-six percent for former Bush challengers Al Gore and John Kerry respectively. The Democratic Party sells; individual Democrats do not. That is what Rove will try to do at both the national and local levels – put frightening faces in front of pragmatic policies.

For example, Fineman predicts if you never heard of Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan, you soon will, thanks to Rove and company. The African-American and old-school liberal from Detroit is currently obscure but would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if the Democrats regain control of the House. He has expressed interest in holding impeachment hearings against Bush. Rove will jump on him as the face of a Party dedicated to revenge, not reform.

More to the point, Rove's strategy will force the Democrats to start focusing on their national figures a full two years prior to the 2008 Presidential election.

And this comes at a time when Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, leader of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has been seen angrily storming out of DNC Chairman Howard Dean's office. Emanuel's grievance is that while Dean has proven an effective fundraiser for Democrats, he is spending its money too freely and too early in the election cycle. Emanuel and others fear this will leave the Party unable to help candidates compete on equal terms with Republicans this fall.

If people respond to Rove's fear-based approach the way he hopes, Democrats may be forced to do exactly what Emanuel believes will be disastrous for them.

The Democratic Party has reason to feel optimism at this moment. But rather like Ms. Dion in my whimsical report, they better guard against slipping into a state of catatonic contentment. Otherwise, they will be left not knowing if they are looking at the dummy or they are it.

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