Tuesday, November 07, 2006

When the election is over

The evangelical Christian community has been down this road before.

As Kevin Phillips writes in American Theocracy, at several moments in our history the nation’s large evangelical Christian community has been drawn into the political arena by politicians seeking to harness their numbers for their own political ends. Each time it has ended badly, and, with their spiritual mission compromised and their leaders seduced by power, they have withdrawn from the public square.

Once again, it is ending badly.

With only hours remaining before voting begins, President Bush is winging across the American heartland, touching down in districts that have no business requiring his attention. Long gone is the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism at home and humility abroad that he rode to the White House six years ago. Now he is the American Nativist reborn, railing against gay marriage, illegal immigration and the Democratic Threat to America’s Future.

Just weeks ago, in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary, the Republican message of Fear––Fear of Terrorism, Fear of Tax Increases, Fear of Nancy Pelosi with a Gavel and Henry Waxman with a Subpoena––seemed destined to deliver an electoral victory. In that optimistic moment, Party strategists even envisioned the war in Iraq as an issue that would play to Republican advantage.

The political ad that had been prepared––entitled The Stakes––loomed to be a centerpiece of the tri-part Fear campaign. A post-modern inversion of the famous Daisy ad that suggested to voters that the world risked nuclear war if Barry Goldwater elected without ever mentioning him by name, The Stakes showed only the face of Osama bin Laden, while in silence his words of hatred for America scrolled down the screen, followed by the words These are the Stakes. The Stakes was intended to remind voters that war is upon us and that Democrats lack the stomach to take on the threats that we face.

But few people have ever seen The Stakes. Perhaps that is because Republican strategists realized that it is hard to watch The Stakes and not question why our focus has been on Iraq all this time rather than on bin Laden, and why after all the hyperbole, the man who attacked us on 9/11 has drifted from our radar screen. Or perhaps that is because the Republican campaign came unglued in the wake of the relentless cascade of events––from Iraq to North Korea to Iraq to Mark Foley to Iraq––that left it playing defense for weeks, until John Kerry stepped in to draw the media fire.

In these last days, the President has turned his back on the political center and has focused his message at the right wing of his party. Instead of the campaign of Fear that was designed to move the votes of Americans of all stripes, he has returned to the social issues that he hopes once again will energize the evangelical Christian community that has twice supported his election and that remains his sole source of positive approval ratings.

And as the prospects for victory deteriorated, the President’s rhetoric escalated. He had no choice. From that bright morning back in Texas, when Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd charted a political strategy that eschewed the political center in favor of a strategy built around motivating the evangelical Christian community, the President was committed.

But as the President comes to them again for their support, for the evangelical Christian community the President’s words must ring hollow. For six years, the President has had total control over the levers of power, and yet his stump speech is largely about what needs to be done rather than about what he has accomplished. Like his recent strategy of quoting Osama bin Laden to engender support for the war in Iraq, his stump speech has in an odd ways become less a testament to his principles than to what he has failed to accomplish.

But worse than the lack of results has been the corruption of the movement itself, as Phllips suggested. Beginning with the Shiavo tragedy, the deeply-rooted sentiments of the evangelical community have been manipulated for personal and political gain. The wave of scandals, including Enron and Abramoff and Foley and Haggard, have each involved personalities who moved easily from piety to power to wealth to disgrace. And in the wake of each scandal, the moral clarity of the leaders of the evangelical Christian community has been further undermined, as they rose to the defense of people who did not deserve defending.

Finally, the corrupting influence of politics on the evangelical leadership was laid bare in the Foley scandal. Faced with evidence that Republican leaders had failed in their duty to protect House pages from a predatory member, evangelical leaders cast away any remaining claim to moral clarity as they blamed gay Republican staffers rather than call the House leadership to account for their failure to protect the children in their care.

If Karl Rove is wrong, and the polls and pundits have it right this time, tomorrow the President’s base will hold him accountable. He has used them and he has failed them, and he has failed the nation. At a time when unemployment has hit historic lows and the stock market has hit historic highs, the President has a better case to make than the demonization of gays, Mexicans, judges and Democrats. But instead he will go to the well one last time. And when it is over, the evangelical community will, as Phillips suggests, retreat back to their spiritual mission of conversion and personal salvation.

When George Bush embraced the strategy that Rove and Dowd suggested could build a permanent Republican majority, he fell prey to hubris. Rove provided a strategy for winning elections that was fundamentally flawed as a strategy for governance. The use of demonization as an electoral strategy undermined the President’s ability to build governing coalitions, and the paradigm of good vs. evil that suits the President so well quickly migrated from electoral strategy to the halls of Congress to civil society.

Today, Dowd’s new book Applebee's America suggests that the strategy Bush embraced may have run its course. Fully half of those in each political party are voicing disgust with the tenor of political dialogue as it has evolved and are looking for a politics of compromise and conciliation. If Karl Rove and Ken Melman are not successful in generating the turnout from their base that is the core of their strategy, the political implications will be significant for 2008 and beyond.

For the Republican Party, which has alienated New England moderates, old-school fiscal and small government conservatives, gay and pro-choice party members, changing course to tack back to the political center is unlikely. The Party is now firmly in the hands of the right wing, as there are few moderates left in the Senate or the House, and after tomorrow, Maine’s women Senators and Arlen Specter may be all that is left of the Republican Party along the long moderate arc that once stretched from Ohio through New England.

The challenge for Democrats will be to resist a move to the left just at the moment when the political center has been abandoned by the Republicans. As anti-war sentiment has taken center stage, the Democratic left is feeling its oats, and can fairly argue that it was the centrist Democrats who folded under Republican pressure. For those on the left who for years have lusted for a Rovian move to the left and argued that such a strategy would mobilize voters who now stay home, the thought of moving toward the center is anathema. At the same time, the new voices in the party may include the staunch centrists recruited to run this year by Rahm Emmanuel, people like Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Heath Shuler and Bob Casey will likely push back against a move to the left.

Such is the illogic of the moment, and the political forces that may be put into play as the polls close tomorrow. The activists in each parties will likely lay claim that the future of their party, leaving a void in the political center. Ironically, the President who embraced a strategy for victory that proved toxic for governance may have produced a political landscape where neither party is eager to embrace the large core of voters who are ready for a breather from the partisanship that has racked the nation.

And then, of course, there is the prospect that the pundits are wrong and that Rove is right. If the evangelical community that he and the President have cultivated come out tomorrow and deliver the goods for the Party, and the House and Senate stay in Republican hands, the long-term outcome is even more certain. The Republican move to the right will be vindicated, and a Democratic move to the left will be inevitable. And the paradigm of blue vs. red, and good vs. evil that have riven the nation will likely continue.

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