In her most recent column, Jill Lawrence at Politics Daily makes the case that President Obama is not really ignoring his base. In her column defending Obama’s “maverick” behavior, which often goes against direct promises he made to important Democratic constituencies, she quotes Stan Greenberg:
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said Democrats need opportunities to reach across party lines and show they can govern. That’s how you win independents who hate “the Washington culture, the polarized culture,” he said this week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “Karl Rove had a base strategy,” Greenberg added. “And he was very, very consistent, and he destroyed the Republican Party.”
This is complete nonsense and a dangerous rewriting of history. Karl Rove did not destroy the Republican Party. No one political operative, no matter how powerful, brilliant, or stupid, can destroy a political party. As much as it might pain professional political operatives like Greenberg, they are, in the grand scheme of things, just not as important as Greenberg thinks they are.
The elected Republicans who were in power when they caused or failed to respond correctly to our country’s most serious disasters are the people who destroyed the party. It was the war in Iraq, stripped of all pretense of justification and turned into a long, costly, and confusing waste of American blood and treasure, that really hurt the Republican party in 2006. It was the response to Katrina that really helped tarnish George W. Bush’s image. It was several scandals involving elected Republicans that helped Democrats take back the House.
In 2008, the mishandling of the Iraq war was a serious issue. The complete financial meltdown on Bush’s watch played a huge role in helping to elect Obama and other Democrats. Unemployment rose rapidly, and most people lost a lot of money. Fairly or unfairly, the elected Republicans were seen as failing at the task of governing by most of the country–and even large parts of their own base.
The Republican party was not destroyed in 2006 and 2008 by Karl Rove or his appeal-to-the-base political strategy. The GOP was destroyed by Republican leaders’ own failures, their own incompetence, and some plain bad luck. Unless Rove was personally supplying arms to the Iraqi insurgency, single handily spending billions creating the credit default swaps that caused the biggest economic downturn in decades, and had the power of God to summon hurricanes, he bares only a small part of the blame (if any at all) for Republican political loses.
Political strategy, GOTV efforts, voter targeting, etc., play an important role in elections, but they affect things mainly around the edges; not core direction. They can be, at most, the difference between losing 28 seats, and only losing 20.
If Obama and the Democrats in Congress can implement policies that turn the economy around, seriously decrease unemployment, and make the vast majority of Americans feel better off and more financially secure, they will do very well in the next election, regardless of their political strategy. If, on the other hand, the economy tanks and unemployment jumps to 12%, it does not matter if Obama appeals to his base or tries to be a mavericky bipartisan reacher across the aisle. With either political strategy, Democrats will still get hit hard in November. Getting the policy right, so that it most benefits regular voters, is really the best political strategy.