Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM....Mark Schmitt says something interesting today about the governing philosophy of the Bush/Rove presidency:

I think of Rove as looking at past presidencies and seeing them as weakened because they worried too much about consequences that didn't really matter, such as the judgment of history or short-term popularity. Bush 41 thought that he had to do something about the deficit, or there would be consequences. So he got drawn into the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit, which earned him a fight within his own party. But Rove recognizes that there's a lot you can get away with if you just act like you can get away with it, especially if you raise the stakes, and as a result he moves with much greater freedom. It seems to me that part of their genius is they've gotten rid of much of the "you just can't do that" mentality of politics, and stripped everything down to the bare essence of what they can get away with.

One of my biggest worries is that that's a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle. Politics, like much of civilization, depends on the existence of some unquestioned, "it just isn't done" customs. An example that I've mentioned a couple times is the explicit theory, on display once again in the CAFTA vote, that you want to pass a bill with as narrow a margin as possible, because every vote over 218 in the House is wasted and might represent a compromise. That's not something that legislative strategists ever thought of before....

It's true that Rove has figured out that the Washington consensus that favors compromise and bipartisanship is nothing more than a custom, and one that can be successfully ignored. Newt Gingrich actually had the insight before him, but Rove is the one who made it work.

But while there's a lot to this, I think it may take too narrow a view. After all, nearly all successful presidents have figured out something their predecessors didn't. FDR understood that he could harness the power of the state in ways that no one had thought of before, LBJ understood the growing power of race as an electoral tool, and Reagan was the first to figure out how to use television as a fundamental source of power. On a smaller level, Nixon jiu-jitsued LBJ's insight by figuring out how to use racial fear to win the presidency, and Republicans in the 90s figured out new ways of manipulating the media to destroy an adversary.

Bottom line: I don't think that overturning long established conventional wisdom is unique to Bush and the modern Republican machine. It's a standard part of political evolution. The real problem for liberals, I think, is merely that we haven't made any contributions to this evolution recently. Somewhere out there, there's some kind of conventional wisdom that could be overturned to our benefit. We just need to figure out what it is.

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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