Karl Rove time

Posted: Nov 13, 2002 12:00 AM
While Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, has undoubtedly enjoyed the praise he's receiving as the tactician behind last week's Republican victories, his real concern is strategy: how to build a Republican majority that will last not just for a single election day but for a generation. Along those lines, the Rove equation of George W. Bush and William McKinley has received media attention, sometimes sarcastic, during the past several years: Plunk "Rove" and "McKinley" into the Lexis/Nexis data base, and over 200 references to articles citing both men show up. What's commonly reported about the Rove paradigm is this: McKinley won a narrow victory in 1896 but a big one in 1900, and five other Republicans made the White House almost always a GOP preserve until 1933. Republicans lost only when the party split in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson rode in and then narrowly won re-election. Republicans went from squeaker to repeated landslides by developing pro-growth policies with broad appeal. Today's Republicans can go and do likewise. What's not reported is that McKinley's strategy was political but also moral: He refused to encourage class and ethnic warfare. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan, leader of the Christian left in 1896 and 1900, tried to unite small farmers and urban workers in an attack on the rich and a call for big government. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's running mate in 1900, said, "If Bryan wins, we have before us some years of social misery not markedly different from that of any South American republic." Specific policies McKinley proposed are irrelevant now in our different economic circumstances, but it's the thought that counts: Don't play to economic and ethnic animosities. The Bush/Rove appreciation of compassionate conservatism has both a political and moral base: Appeals to Hispanics and initiatives that can truly help the poor are important both to winning elections and to avoiding South American-style class conflict. GOP leaders can now make their party a true majority one if they show the ability to protect us from foreign enemies and from themselves. They will have to fight hard against tendencies to appease dictators abroad and to become dictators themselves, dispensing rewards to their pals. They can achieve tactical successes that way, but they will be strategically successful only if they promote decentralization and deregulation so that rich and poor Americans learn to help each other instead of turning to government. They will have to fight hard against vested interests, including their own. Building for a generation requires a boldness that goes beyond tactics and even beyond strategy. It reaches to a rare combination of determination plus vision. Since politics is a collision sport, people committed to political principle and not just ephemeral popularity have to be willing to tackle the demagogues among both rich and poor who play to class and ethnic hatred. They need to do all that without becoming demagogues themselves. President Bush and Karl Rove have the vision, one they've promoted since Bush was governor: compassionate conservatism, a vision of rich and poor, and of whites, blacks and Hispanics, working together in communities and developing their own plans from the bottom up. Liberals often respond condescendingly to that vision, saying it's a nice thought but maintaining their belief that a strong government hand is needed. They have what Thomas Sowell termed "the vision of the anointed." They see themselves as saviors of the poor but have become oppressors. The compassionate conservative vision, though, emphasizes faith-based and community initiatives rather than bureaucratic ones. President Bush needs to continue to speak out on this, and at the same time, he and Rove should develop a legislative strategy that makes more people aware of the clash of visions. Republicans don't have to downplay ideas, for they are now the party of new ideas that can help both rich and poor and bring about a generation of GOP dominance.