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Leave It to Cleaver

Wedge politics have given the GOP an edge, so the Democrats may want to slice and dice for their own side

July 25, 2004|Rick Perlstein | Rick Perlstein is the author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus."

CHICAGO — Political observers recently got to watch Republican wedge politics go down, in textbook fashion. At a fundraiser in New York for Sen. John Kerry, Whoopi Goldberg said something naughty about President Bush. Ken Mehlman of the Bush campaign called the formerly obscure event a "star-studded hate fest" and demanded the Kerry campaign release it on video -- implying even naughtier tidbits to come. Fox News, then the rest of the media, granted Goldberg's attack legitimacy as an "issue." The mighty GOP ax had fallen again, predictably, right at the point where two key constituencies of the Democratic coalition are joined.

One segment of the party is both reliably rich and reliably liberal -- "Hollywood." Another -- they used to call them "hard hats" -- is culturally conservative but seeks a dependable protector of its economic interests.

Chop!

One chunk of voters falls to the right side of the hatchet, angry at Hollywood's insult to their piety. Another falls to the left, ready to cancel their checks to Kerry if he insults free speech. Pundits pile on, interpreting the flap as something Democrats foisted upon us.

"Why is it that the Hollywood folks, who are very bright people, don't get that this campaign is about middle America, not the left and the right coasts?" asked Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Kerry is forced into a no-win choice. He releases a statement disassociating himself from the stars -- and one wonders how much that will cost him in donations.

All that was predictable.

The next part was predictable too. As the story spent another week in the news, Democrats howled with outrage. "The Republicans have gotten away with it again!"

I'm not howling -- at least not at Republicans. Instead, I'd like to howl at my fellow Democrats convening now in Boston. In the Case of the Star-Studded Hate Fest, I'd like to congratulate Republicans on a nice play. The only thing that frustrates me is that Democrats never try the same thing.

Lately the phrase "wedge issue" has become synonymous with only the kind of divides that Republicans exploit. But properly understood -- historically understood -- the phrase is politically neutral. The meat at the joints of the Republican coalition is tender too, more tender than it has been in any time in recent memory. It is past time for Democrats to begin aggressively exploiting that.

Republicans are skilled at reaching into the distant past of Democratic candidates to stage their melodramas. Democrats wouldn't have to go back far at all. Take something President Bush said in a 1993 Houston Post article: Heaven is open only to those who accept Jesus Christ.

An aggressive campaign by Kerry and the Democrats would pressure Bush to explain whether he still believes that. As it happens, Bush has an answer: Billy Graham told him not to "play God." But thereby hangs the wedge.

Put the issue in Bush's face again, forcing him -- Chop! -- to choose whether to offend one party segment or another. Republican voters who believe you have to be Christian to go to heaven, and want their president to believe the same, fall to the right side of the hatchet. Moderate Republicans, who like Bush for his tax policies but are embarrassed to be associated with intolerance, fall to the left.

Like the affirmative-action-affirming African Americans versus affirmative-action-reviling white ethnics, or environmentalists versus rural hunters. Once they were all in one happy Democratic family. Then came the Republican ax, aimed assiduously at the party's most tender joints.

The problem is that no force in the Democratic Party seems to be probing the architecture of the Republicans in this way: figuring out which of its bulkheads lean most precariously against another, what cracks lay bare its weakening structural integrity at the foundation.

There are plenty. Here's one:

Family-owned manufacturing companies have always been the bedrock of the Republican coalition -- and its most reliable donors. They're wobbly now. "I'm very conservative," a factory owner in Rockford, Ill., told me. "Always voted Republican. But I'm extremely concerned with what I hear from this current administration."

He's disgusted at how Republicans always side with giant corporations, like Wal-Mart, that ruthlessly run U.S. plants out of business with their unsustainable obsession with radical cost-cutting among suppliers, devastating communities like Rockford.

Another Rockford manufacturer told me that a Democratic presidential candidate "who steps forward and says we're going to make manufacturing a priority in this country" would get a $2,000 donation from him. Some habitual Republican voters on his shop floor mentioned the same reasons for switching to the Democrats.

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