Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Anti-Democratic Republicans: The Rovian Strand

In my last post, I argued that the Bush Administration in particular and the Republican Party in general are showing a disturbing tendancy to ignore the rules of democracy. I also argued that there are two essentially separate anti-democratic tendancies, the Rovian tendancy and the national security (or Cheney) tendancy.

The Rovian tendancy clearly pre-dates 9/11. It is the Rovian wing of the Republican party that seeks to create a "permanent Republican majority" and to shut the Democrats out of power entirely. This tenancy is frankly partisan, focused on domestic policy, and essentially amoral, valuing power over principle. It shows little interest in the substantive merits of policy, regarding policy mostly as a tool of partisan advancement.

To the extent the Rovians are want to create a dictatorship, the nearest equivalent would not be any of the examples Naomi Wolf cites, but Mexico in the heyday of the Party for the Institutional Revolution (PRI). Mexico was a dictatorship, not of any individual or of the army, but of a political party. It maintained the outward trappings of democracy. Each President had near-dictatorial powers, but was limited to a six-year term. The PRI tolerated opposition parties, but did not allow them any actual power. Seemingly independent institutions, such as labor unions, served as arms of the PRI. The PRI maintained its power through patronage (when possible), rigged elections (when patronage failed to buy enough support) and repression (when all else failed).

Likewise, Rovian Republicans seek a permanent Republican majority in which the Democratic Party will maintain the appearance of competition, but be excluded from any share of actual power. The problem for Rovians is that, in fact, public opinion is about divided between Democrats and Republicans. Their response has been to seek a 51% majority by rallying the base and treat it as a sweeping mandate.

Some Rovian tactics have been what Wolf would call hardball, but still within democratic bounds. Nasty elections are one such example. All Democratic politicians, regardless of their actual viewpoints, are invariably slimed as wild-eyed left-wing extremities and, since the Iraq War, probable traitors. "Red" and "Blue" maps are used to imply that "real Americans" support Republicans and only a tiny elite favors Democrats even if, in the case of the 2000 election, that tiny elite slightly outnumbered "real Americans." Domestic policy is treated solely as a matter of pandering to favored constituencies, without a thought to substantive merit.

Congressional Republicans have been seeking to shut Democrats out of power entirely since they became the majority in 1994. They began by launching the K Street Project, requiring lobbyists to hire only Republicans or lose access to Congress. Bills were prepared at the top, or by the executive or lobbyists, sometimes even forgoing committee hearings. During floor debate, most bills were declared unamendable, forcing a straight up-or-down vote on legislation Democrats had not had the opportunity to read. When Senate and House versions of a bill differed, Democrats were excluded from conference committees altogether. Under these conditions rank-and-file members of Congress have little to do other than bring home the bacon to ensure their reelection, hence the notorious abuses of earmarks. And once the Democrats again took control of Congress in 2006, Senate Republicans responded by blocking all legislation regardless of merit.*

Though extreme hardball, all of this is legal. It is dangerous, nontheless, because it clearly violates the spirit of the democratic consensus that the minority will yield to the will of the majority and the majority will respect the rights of the minority. The goal of a permanent Republican majority is to deny any rights to the Democrats.

As Republican defeat loomed in 2006, the Bush White House went beyond legal dirty tricks. A growing body of evidence suggests that it attempted to use the federal government as a patronage machine to ensure the reelection of Republicans, in violation of the Hatch Act. Most notably, Lurita Doan was forced out of the General Services Administration for directing federal contracts to benefit vulnerable Republican candidates for Congress. Nor was the GSA alone. An estimated 15 federal agencies received briefings on the importance of helping vulnerable Republicans, including the EPA, VA, and Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Education, Agriculture and Energy Departments, as well as NASA, the Small Business Administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Most alarming of all has been evidence of corruption in the Justice Department. The US Attorney scandal, after all, has been about whether the Bush Administration attempted to use prosecutions as a tool for swaying elections. In particular, did it seek to time indictments for maximum electoral impact, or to treat all narrow Democratic victories as evidence of fraud? And did it use dubious prosecutions as a political tool against rivals such as Governor Don Siegelman of Alabama, or Elliot Spitzer?

Ultimately, of course, the Rove attempt to create a permanent Republican majority has failed. When public opinion is roughly equally divided between two parties, it is not feasible to for one to become a permanent majority, or to completely exclude the other from power. A 51% majority is unstable and easily disrupted by relatively few defections. Focusing entirely on the base will ultimately alienate swing voters. Seeking to rally the base by demonizing large portions of the population will counter-mobilize the groups being demonized. Focusing entirely on politics and ignoring the substantive merits of policy will make for bad policy, a fact that can only be concealed for so long. The Rovian strategy can win short-term victories, but it is self-destructive in the long run.

But the Rovian danger remains because it is not limited to the Republicans. The pathology of the permanent campaign has been with us a long time and is not limited to one party. One of the traits of the permanent campaign is the degree to which it forces office holders to subordinate policy to politics and focus on pandering rather than accomplishing. And what Republicans did over 12 years of power was merely an exaggerated and compacted version of what Democrats did over 40. The K Street Project, by pressing for only Republican lobbyists, was merely seeking to reverse Democratic domination that had developed over 40 years. By 1994, Democrats were seriously abusing earmarks and bringing 70% of all bills to the floor as unamendable. Republicans went on to make earmark abuse much worse and by 2005 allowed only 12 out of 111 bills to be amended. In short, Republicans have merely been perfecting disturbing trends that were underway well before they came to power. And Democrats, having gotten a hard lesson in how to play really dirty, will be strongly tempted to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

The Rovian Strand has been defeated by now, but the danger is by now means over.

*I am not clear whether or to what extent they are still doing it.

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