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THE PRESIDENCY

Bush's Scorched-Earth Campaign

Politics drives policy as the White House seeks to knock out the Democratic Party.

June 08, 2003|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — Every president for nearly a century has had political operatives in the White House to advise him on how his decisions would play with the public and tell him what the ramifications of policy would be on his reelection prospects. But few Americans are cynical enough to believe that this political gamesmanship is anything other than a means to an end, the end being to effectuate policy. Teddy Roosevelt had trusts to bust and Manifest Destiny to fulfill; FDR a Depression to tame; Richard Nixon a detente to achieve; Ronald Reagan a government to shrink and a Cold War to win; Bill Clinton social programs to save from the conservative hatchet.

And so it has always been -- until now. From the moment of his disputed election in 2000, President Bush has been dramatically reversing the traditional relationship between politics and policy. In his administration, politics seem less a means to policy than policy is a means to politics. Its goal is not to further the conservative revolution as advertised. The presidency's real goal is to disable the Democratic opposition, once and for all.

This has become a presidential mission partly by default. Bush came to the presidency with no commanding ideology, no grand crusade. He was in league with conservatives, but he was no fire-breather. For him, conservatism seemed a convenience -- the only path to the Republican nomination. One is hard-pressed to think of a single position Bush took during the 2000 campaign, save for his tax cuts, much less a full program.

As is typical with strategists, Karl Rove, Bush's political Svengali, isn't much of an ideologue either. According to Nicholas Lemann's recent profile of him in the New Yorker, as Rove moved up the ladder of Texas GOP politics, he seemed more interested in advancing his career than in promoting policy. Rove is an operator. His job is to win elections and build unassailable coalitions so that he doesn't have to worry about winning future elections. The philosophical stuff matters only insofar as he can parlay it into political advantage. As he told Lemann, "I think we're at a point where the two major parties have sort of exhausted their governing agendas." In Rove's view, that means devising some new agenda that will attract votes.

The difference between Rove and former political operatives like Michael Deaver in the Reagan administration and Dick Morris in Clinton's is that he doesn't just advise on the political consequences of policy; he seems to be involved in crafting policy, making him arguably the single most important advisor in the White House. Rove's hand and guiding spirit are everywhere evident. As John DiIulio, who briefly headed Bush's faith-based initiative, indiscreetly put it in an interview last year, everything in this administration is political, by which he meant that everything is the product of political calculation and everything is devised specifically for political advantage.

Every administration tilts decisions to reward friends and hurt enemies, though none since the days of Warren G. Harding has been as zealous in delivering largess to supporters and none since Nixon has seemed so ruthless in meting out punishments as this one. (Coming under intense administration criticism for his remarks, DiIulio apologized and expressed deep remorse for his "groundless" charges.)

Still, Rove has had something more up his sleeve than lining up support for his master's reelection. Rove's genius -- and the true genius of this administration -- is that he (and it) recognizes that political machinations don't have to be ancillary to policy. If Rove's mission is to ensure Bush's reelection and the formation of a GOP electoral monolith, he wants to devise policies that not only appeal to the party's core voters. They should also disable the Democratic Party from contesting elections. This is government expressly designed for its own self-perpetuation -- government designed to undermine the political process.

Rove's template for his new idea of governance is "tort reform" -- enacting laws that will reduce jury awards for various malfeasances, from product liability to medical malpractice. According to Lemann, this was Rove's earliest legislative crusade in Texas. To this day, Republicans insist that businesses have been unfairly burdened by excessive jury awards, but the political reason this has become a fervent GOP cause is that trial lawyers contribute heavily to the Democratic Party. Choke off their income and you choke off a major source of Democratic money.

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