The Karl Rove playbook is no longer working that well. You know the playbook. It’s the one emphasizes us vs. them. In the Karl Rove America, you win elections by slicing and dicing Americans into micro-groups, then ruthlessly targeting these micro-groups until you have enough votes to win elections for your side. It’s about some other group of Americans oppressing you and your clan, or who are out to Destroy the American Way ™, and who are secretly communists, Islamic terrorists or socialists.
This is the rulebook that Republicans have played by (more of less) since at least 1994. Overall, it has worked pretty well for them. In 1994, it worked to elect a huge number of new Republican congressmen and women to Congress (54 House seats and 8 Senate seats). It elected George W. Bush in 2000. In 2002, in part because the Republicans rebranded themselves at the national security party, it let Republicans add 8 more House seats and 2 Senate seats. It brought George W. Bush reelection in 2004. The playbook said it could be accomplished by painting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as too liberal, too Birkenstock and as someone who secretly hated his country. After all, didn’t everyone who protested the Vietnam War hate his or her country at least on some level? The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent millions dollars on advertisements asserting that Kerry was a coward and un-American when the record clearly showed otherwise. Overall, America bought it.
Still, it was not a perfect playbook. In 1996 and 1998, Democrats made modest pickups in Congress. Of course, in 2006, Republicans got a figurative kick in the stomach, losing both houses of Congress. Democrats added 31 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. It’s always dangerous to read the tealeaves two weeks before an election, but few would dispute that Democrats are likely to make impressive gains in both the House and the Senate this cycle. All but a few fringe polls suggest that Barack Obama will win handily on November 4th, barring some catastrophically stupid mistake on his part or some unexpected national event that completely changes the dynamics of the race.
Given that in 2009 Democrats are likely to control both houses of Congress as well as the White House, you would think that Republicans might be fielding some new campaign strategies. They would no doubt be greatly helped if they did not have a colossal failure of a president in their party, and had not so gleefully aided and abetted his mistakes. John McCain’s campaign now appears in disarray and is making one stupid mistake after another. For example, apparently there was no one politically savvy enough in the campaign to realize that having alleged hockey mom and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin spend $150,000 on clothes and hairdos might be a stupid way to sell her as someone in touch with the “Real America”. If you were inclined to think of Republicans as rich and out of touch, this strategy would just confirm your biases.
There must be some logic though to the Karl Rove playbook. After all, his playbook, and ones before it pioneered principally by Newt Gingrich, worked pretty well. It kept the party largely in control of Congress for the last fourteen years or so. So why not give it a try one more time? Why not distinguish between the real (red) America from those parts of America that apparently want to belong to the United Socialist States of America? Why not segment and focus group, segment and focus group your party into power, or at least use it as a strategy to limit your losses? Why not do your best to challenge a surge of new and apparently largely Democratic voters by putting up obstacles to their voting? Why not inflate what was best a tangential relationship between Barack Obama and a former Weather Underground leader? Why not have people like Rudy Giuliani record false statements about Barack Obama for robocalls? After all, what do you have to lose besides political power and obsolescence?
I remember way back when in 1978 the song You Light Up My Life, was number one on all the pop radio stations. You could not turn the dial without hearing it. Then suddenly it was played one too many times and we were all simultaneously plugging our ears with wax to try to turn it off. Republicans are still sashaying to the beat of We’re the Only Real Americans apparently unaware that this song too has been played one too many times and no one but they believe it. Not only do non-red Americans not want to hear it, they cannot stand the tune anymore. Give us new tune, please!
Barack Obama supplied it. His message of hope may sound naïve and sophomoric, but at least it was a positive message. It was the 2008 version of the Great Depression’s notable song, Happy Days are Here Again. Instead of emphasizing what divides us, why not emphasize our unity as a nation? Why not offer hope instead of cynicism? Why not offer sound solutions instead of more ideology?
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank produced this snarky column and video yesterday. He was shocked, yes shocked, by an Obama campaign rally yesterday in Richmond, Virginia. He went to Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, to find out just who these un-real and unpatriotic Americans that Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann figure are out there in large numbers because they don’t vote Republican. To Milbank’s surprise, apparently these people were chanting “USA! USA!” by the tens of thousands respectfully listening to The Star Spangled Banner … at an Obama rally! It was hard to escape the feeling that maybe there are millions of patriotic Democrats out there too and maybe some were not even socialists!
November 4th will officially end the Republican era that was dominated by us vs. them, hate over love, fear over tolerance. As Republicans survey their wreckage they may, to their utter shock, discover that for the first time in a very long time (no thanks to them) they really are living in the United States of America.
Perhaps after they lick their wounds they’ll decide, what the heck, why not just Democrats and Independents and rebuild a better country that actually works for everyone of us, instead of just them? I like to be hopeful, just like Barack Obama. However, given their track record, I am not too optimistic.