Karl Rove’s departure from the White House will likely have little effect on the policies of the Bush Administration, but its significance as a hallmark in the political soul of the nation is great. It gives us an occasion to reflect on what Rove and the adherents of his political strategies have contributed to how politics are conducted. And it lends itself to inspire us to wonder if the impact he made on that conduct is now rippling to an end.
Americans of any political stripe should hope so. This may sound like a profoundly partisan statement – a sneer at a man who has been a loyal streetfighter for the victory of the Conservative movement. In fact, as a political scientist, I tip my hat to Rove’s record of triumph. But as a citizen who believes in the virtue of both sides of America’s political discourse, I see Rove’s strategies as an insidious toxin in our political system – a chemical WMD that has reliably both won the field and poisoned it. For Rove’s victories were – like many of the policies they then allowed – pyrrhic victories. The reason for this is the principle objective of his strategy: relentless focus on wedge issues.
Wedge issues are issues that divide Americans into two distinct camps. It’s easiest to define what a wedge issue is by defining what it is not.
A “non-wedge” issue would be issues that most Americans differ on how to go about achieving success, but not whether such things should exist at all. The tax code is one issue; national defense is another. By contrast, wedge issues are the issues that divide sharply on whether they should exist or not, and usually have profound emotional associations: abortion, gay marriage, and “right to life” for instance. In all of Rove’s recent campaigns, from 1996 to 2006, he has always relied chiefly on negative statements about opponents coupled with pushing wedge issues into the media agenda.
In doing so, his wedge issues have chiseled away at the political bridge in American political dialogue and cut a Republican Party “base” that leaves many conservatives feeling like they’re in the dust. The advantage of defining a campaign with the emotionally-fierce wedge issues is that it riles up a zealous “base”. This base provides a dependable cadre of voters that will always mobilize in strong numbers for Republicans because of the side of the “wedge” they are on. Meanwhile, swing voters are influenced by the relentless negativity, usually to vote on the basis of a candidate’s sullied character, rather than on their opponent’s policy beneifts – or to not vote at all out of mutual disgust. Rove did not so much as get people to vote /for/ his candidate on issues like national defense as /against/ the other candidate.
The result? Apathy and disappointment among swing voters, and a base that is viciously active and powerfully organized around those wedge issues. As a result of the latter, Republicans – and, even, to the extent that vocal minorities influence the dialogue and thus the agenda – have to pander to the extreme on those wedge issues. That the wedge issues are not the “Reagan Republican” or “Goldwater Republican” priorities of the “western” Republican party, driven by a love of individualism and small government, but the priorities of the “southern” Republican, moralistic and dependent on government enforcement of values, leaves many Republicans stuck in the mud, and the “big tent” with them. Now issues that normally would not unite Republicans of the Goldwater stripe with those of Jerry Falwell’s – such as gays in the military and stem-cell research – embody the Republican base that all GOP candidates must cater to in order to win.
Just as this forces wedge issues to typify the Republican base, it vilifies it. Democrats who otherwise would and have met across the aisle on non-wedge issues are forced into positions of staunch opposition to their GOP counterparts. The result is a divided electorate – one that is increasingly suspicious of the other side even though cooperation is not only necessary, but entirely possible and comfortable. If the caustic, paranoid rhetoric in partisan political commentary that has risen since the mid-90s is not evidence of this enough, looking at the electoral results in Rove’s races shows that the victories he wins are always close calls, and always carried due to a staunch socially conservative base. In short, the wedges have driven us apart, demolishing consensus and leaving it with a feeling of angry void and impending collision.
This is not all Rove’s mantle to bear, but with his record of triumph and ruthlessness in achieving it, he has been its standard bearer. He has helped create an America that votes against, not for; mobilizes to react, not act; distrusts rather than hopes. To follow his example was to be successful; to attempt to resist it was to be seen as outdated or, at best, anomalous. Now that he is gone, will his adherents and their strategies leave with him?
No. Already Clinton and her campaign’s captain, Terry McAuliffe, have taken reflexive negativity to a blitzkrieg level. They mechanically follow Rove’s playbook, tossing the wry positive politics of the last milennium’s final decade out the window in favor of a cynical, manipulative means of sure success. What Rove matured from mere tactics into a full-fledged religion, candidates like Clinton, Edwards and Romney are waging holy war with.
Now America is faced with a dilemma that will not be solved with the departure of one man or the change of nameplates in the White House – it is a wear in the fabric of the nation’s soul. The aberration that was Rove’s strategy has become the rule. And if due censure is not stuck on those who fight and win by it, that rule may one day be synonymous with American politics.