By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Here's the real meaning of the White House shake-up and the redefinition of Karl Rove's role in the Bush presidency: The administration's one and only domestic priority in 2006 is hanging on to control of Congress.
That, in turn, means that all the spin about Rove's power being diminished is simply wrong. Yes, Rove is giving up some policy responsibilities to concentrate on politics, but guess what: The possibility of President Bush's winning enactment of any major new policy initiative this year is zero. Rove is simply moving to where all the action will, of necessity, be.
As one outside adviser to the administration said, the danger of a Democratic takeover of at least one house of Congress looms large and would carry huge penalties for Bush. The administration fears "investigations of everything" by congressional committees, this adviser said, and the "possibility of a forced withdrawal from Iraq" through legislative action.
"I don't think they see much chance of accomplishing anything this year," said this Republican strategist, who preferred not to be quoted by name. "The bulk of their agenda, let's say, has been put on hold."
Rove never stopped being political, even when he had formal responsibility for policy. What's intriguing about the shift in the direction of Rove's energies is that it marks a turn from the high politics of a partisan realignment driven by ideas and policies to the more mundane politics of eking out votes, seat by seat and state by state. Most of Rove's grander dreams have died as the president's poll numbers have come crashing down.
It's forgotten that the president's proposal to privatize part of Social Security was not primarily about creating solvency in the system, since the creation of private accounts would have aggravated deficits for a significant period. It was part of a larger effort to reorganize government and bring the New Deal era to a definitive close.
The president's "ownership society" was a political project designed to increase Americans' reliance on private markets for their retirements and, over the longer run, on their own resources for health coverage. The idea was that broadening the "investor class," a totemic phrase among tax-cutting conservatives, would change the economic basis of politics -- and create more Republicans.
The collapse of the Social Security initiative was thus more than a policy failure. It was a decisive political defeat that left Bush and Rove with no fallback ideas around which to organize domestic policy. And just as the growing unpopularity of the war in Vietnam after 1966 forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon his Great Society programs -- partly because of large GOP gains in Congress during that year's midterm elections -- opposition to the Iraq war is undercutting Bush's effort to create a kind of Great Society-in-reverse.
The Democrats had such large congressional margins in 1966 that they could suffer major losses and still maintain at least nominal control of both houses. But Republican congressional margins are thin, particularly in the House, where a shift of 15 seats would make Democrat Nancy Pelosi the speaker.
And the possibility of a Democratic tide that might sweep in second- or third-tier challengers is no longer mere fantasy talk among liberals at cocktail parties. It is a genuine Republican fear. According to figures from state polls published this week by SurveyUSA, Bush has an approval rating above 50 percent in just four states -- Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska. His disapproval rating is 60 percent or higher in such key battlegrounds as Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The Virginia numbers from a survey earlier this month -- 37 percent approval for Bush, 60 percent disapproval -- are particularly intriguing. Democrats are beginning to think that Sen. George Allen, who is up for reelection this year and considering a run at the presidency in 2008, may be vulnerable. Democrats already see Republican seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Arizona as reasonable targets. While a Democratic takeover of the Senate is still a long shot, it is no longer a preposterous idea.
Thus Rove's new electoral focus is an urgent administration priority. And given the unfavorable political terrain for the president, Rove's recipe this year, as in 2004, is likely to include a heavy dollop of attacks on the Democrats. Hold on for the new Swift Boaters, coming soon to your swing state. It's not the politics dreams are made of, but it often works.