Hindsight is 20/20: What Republican Campaign Tactics Teach Us About the State of American Democracy.
In 1970, a nineteen-year-old Karl Rove played a little prank on the campaign of Alan Dixon, who was running for State Treasurer of Illinois. Rove used a fake name, walked into Dixon’s campaign office, and stole 1,000 sheets of paper with the Dixon letterhead. The young Rove then used the stationary to print a flier promising “free beer, free food, girls, and a good time for nothing” and dispersed the flier to homeless shelters and rock concerts. To some, this may seem like a harmless juvenile prank, but to others, this is the very first example of the Rovian political strategy.
During the past fifteen years, Americans have become very familiar with the Rove strategy, and his model for victory, in one form or another, has been executed by countless campaigns across the country. The Rove strategy relies on targeted fear and deception, and it is anchored by deep pockets and a network of loosely-formed political action committees.
Often, journalists and political analysts overstate Rove’s singular influence; what Rove has provided is simply a formula, a blueprint, and a method. Rove led, and others followed by example.
The formula is quite elementary: Target voters who can be manipulated, and paint your opponent, through both official and unofficial channels, as morally and ethically bankrupt.
In Texas, Rove helped George W. Bush win the governor’s race by alleging that the late Ann Richards was a lesbian (which she was not). He helped win the South Carolina primary for George W. Bush by spreading the rumor that McCain had a “black baby.” And during the last Presidential election, he found a group of Vietnam veterans who were willing to speak out against Kerry, formed a political action committee, funded the whole enterprise through a Houston real estate developer, and taped a series of powerful commercials, claiming that Kerry hadn’t actually served with distinction. None of these veterans actually served with Kerry, but they still said they had. (In truth, they were simply acting out on an old grudge against Kerry).
Rove famously courted the evangelical vote, and many of his most defamatory and misleading campaign attacks were carried out from the pulpit. (It’s important to note that all the while, behind closed doors, Rove and others insulted and disparaged the very evangelicals they were courting).
What we witnessed on Tuesday was not simply the end of the Republican majority in Congress; we also witnessed the end of Rovian political strategy. Quite simply, Americans are tired of negative campaigning, particularly when the negativity is so transparent in its objectives. During the last election, Republicans pulled out every play in the Rove play book: race-baiting, fear-mongering, and outright divisiveness. It is one thing to campaign on the issues, and it is quite another to scare people into voting (or not voting) based on deception. Republicans may fairly take issue with the Democratic tax plan, and Democrats may also fairly question Republicans on the Iraq War. But when campaigns only appeal to our lowest common denominator, when they preach fear and not hope, when they claim an exclusive hold on morality and God, and when they use our airwaves to spread vitriol, we must stand up, regardless of our party affiliation.
Last Tuesday, Americans did just that. We should all be thankful that there is now a check against the unfettered spending, the misguided war policies, and the culture of corruption that exists any time one party is allowed to rule unopposed.
We should also recognize that the Republicans had actually done a fantastic job of fooling Americans into thinking that our country was more conservative than it actually is and that the only way to move forward is by addressing the needs and concerns of the Great American Middle. During the last election, Democrats received between 25%- 33% of the evangelical vote, a clear sign of the shifting winds.
Next: What the Roy/Brewer Run-off Teaches Us About Alexandria.