Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 4, 2008
POLITICS: Karl Rove Has Been Vindicated

One of the most unambiguous conclusions from Obama's victory? Karl Rove was right.

For the past 8 years, we've had a debate over the best political strategy for approaching a national election. There were, in essence, two contending theories.

Karl Rove's theory - one he perhaps never explicitly articulated, but which was evident in the approach to multiple elections, votes in Congress, and even international coalitions run by his boss, George W. Bush - was, essentially, that you win with your base. You start with the base, you expand it as much as possible by increasing turnout, and then you work outward until you get past 50% - but you don't compromise more than necessary to get to that goal.

Standing in opposition to the Rove theory was what one might call the Beltway Pundit theory, since that's who were the chief proponents of the theory. The Beltway Pundit theory was, in essence, that America has a great untapped middle, a center that resists ideology and partisanship and would respond to a candidate who could present himself as having a base in the middle of the electorate.

Tonight, we had a classic test of those theories. Barack Obama is nothing if not the pure incarnation on the left of the Rovian theory. He ran in the Democratic primaries as the candidate of the 'Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.' His record was pure left-wing all the way. He seems to have brought out a large number of new base voters, in particular African-Americans responding to his racial appeals and voting straight-ticket D. As I'll discuss in a subsequent post, the process of getting to 50.1% for a figure of the left is more complex and involves more concerted efforts at concealment and dissimulation, but the basic elements of the Rovian strategy are all there.

John McCain, by contrast, was the Platonic ideal Beltway Pundit-style candidate, and his defeat by Obama ensures that his like will not win a national nomination any time soon, in either party. McCain spent many years establishing himself as a pragmatic moderate, dissenting ad nauseum and without a consistent unifying principle from GOP orthodoxy; McCain had veered to the center simply whenever he felt that the Republican position was too far. McCain held enough positions that were in synch with the conservative base to make him minimally acceptable, but nobody ever regarded him as a candidate to excite the conservative base.

Now, it's true enough that the partisan environment was terribly challenging for Republicans in 2008. That's why so many of us on the Republican side were willing to go with McCain in the first place. But here's the thing: if you believed the Beltway Pundit theory, that shouldn't matter. If a significant and reliable bloc of voters consistently preferred the moderate, centrist candidate over the more ideological and partisan candidate, in the same way that conservatives prefer the more conservative candidate and liberals prefer the more liberal candidate, you would have a base from which a candidate like McCain could consistently prevail against a candidate like Obama, and partisan identification would be trumped by moderation and proven bipartisanship.

But there is no such base. Centrist, moderate, independent, voters are generally "swing" voters, always have been and always will be. Among those who are at least modestly well-informed, they are a heterogenous lot - some libertarian, some socially conservative but economically populist, some fiscally conservative and socially liberal, some isolationist and anti-immigrant, etc. It's not possible to make of them a "base" - the only way to approach the center is to lock down the real base at one end or the other of the political spectrum, and then reach out to voters in the middle, understanding the real tradeoff that what appeals to one "swing" voter may be anathema to others.

Of course, the dismal approval ratings of the Bush Administration at the end of its days testify to the serious arguments over whether Rove and his boss chose the wrong mix of reaches out to the center as they built their "compassionate conservative" coalition; that's a separate debate. It is likewise a fair debate over the ways in which future conservative candidates can and should make compromises to get the GOP back to that 50.1%. But what's not open for debate, after tonight, is the sheer futility of trying to build a coalition from the center out. Because the center won't stand still for any candidate.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:19 PM | Politics 2008 | Comments (25) | TrackBack (0)

Wow. How perceptive. Rove nailed that permanent realignment to the GOP!!

Posted by: Magrooder at November 4, 2008 10:26 PM

Sorry Crank, but you've got your candidates entirely wrong. You can claim until you are blue in the face that Obama ran to the left, but its just not true. He clearly moved towards the middle/independent voters throughout the general election - see, e.g., the FISA vote, his reaction to the Supreme Court's decision in Heller.

By contrast, incredibly, John McCain seemed to have to run to the right to molify his base throughout this election. Whether it be his pick of Sarah Palin, his choice of campaign consultants, or his choice of campaign themes (see, e.g., claiming Obama was a socialist or wasn't "real america").

As I Democrat, I can't stand Karl Rove. But the guy is a brilliant political consultant. I'd agree that Obama ran to his base in a Rovian style during the primaries, but after having done so (and solidified his base) he clearly moved to the center. By contrast, McCain ran his general election campaign as far to the right, if not more, than his primary campaign. And the results are telling.

Posted by: Democrat down the hall at November 4, 2008 10:43 PM

See, if people in the center were driven off from McCain by how he chose to criticize Obama, that just proves my point - that the very act of having a contested campaign fragments the center in ways that render them unstable as a base. The core of the Rovian theory is that a candidate who is as one with the base can take small, in Obama's case wholly symbolic steps towards the center (note that on your two cited examples, Obama did not renounce his goals of instituting gun controls and revisiting FISA after the election - all he did was yield to temporary political reality). Did Obama at times sell himself as if he was a more moderate candidate? Sure he did, and I'll deal with the challenge that presents later in the week. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he held his base in place by their complete confidence that nothing in his record suggested that he is one.

Posted by: The Crank at November 4, 2008 11:12 PM

I am still holding out hope that Kennedy finds something with Rezko/Obama.

Posted by: dch at November 4, 2008 11:57 PM

McCain lost to a star. It's just that simple.

McCain didn't lose because he wasn't conservative enough. He lost to a celebrity that tells Americans they can have everything and don't have to lift a finger to get it, except to vote Obama and tax rich people. With the media cheer leading him every step of the way.

Then, free money and rainbows for everyone.

This was an American Idol election, and just like the "winners" on that show Obama will ultimately fail in a big way. It won't be his fault though. The media will be there to cover him as much as possible.

You can thank Bush, too. Obama is just another piece of Bush's horrible legacy. The ironic thing is that Obama will be an even worse and more corrupt President than Bush has been, so it will actually help Bush look good in comparison.

Posted by: Dood at November 5, 2008 12:31 AM

I am more disappointed in my country tonight than I have ever been. Having spent my time on the line helping defend it from Communism/Socialism it tears my guts out to watch my country step further down this path. God save the Republic!

Posted by: maddirishman at November 5, 2008 12:32 AM


I have never watched even 1 second of american idol but if you think the winners of that show don't fare well then you don't read the papers. Obama would do well to have the success of those people.

Posted by: jim at November 5, 2008 12:57 AM

"I am more disappointed..."

And you are happy with the last eight years? For gads sake, embrace the idea that a whole lot of folks are now engaged and that someone that can find his zipper from a hole in his pants will be president of the U.S. You're Republic was saved tonight by millions of people taking to the streets of this country to prevent a continuation of failed policies. If you really want to save your Republic, join in and we can make a change. At least now you have a mandate and not a questionable election of a puppet as president.

Posted by: JB at November 5, 2008 1:02 AM

JB, I am not happy with the last 2 years when the advance column of this group took over Congress. Since then the bottom has fallen out. What I notice more and more is that if you want to know whan the dims are up to, listen to what they are accusing others of.

Posted by: maddirishman at November 5, 2008 3:26 AM

JB, I am not happy with the last 2 years when the advance column of this group took over Congress. Since then the bottom has fallen out. What I notice more and more is that if you want to know whan the dims are up to, listen to what they are accusing others of.

Posted by: maddirishman at November 5, 2008 4:15 AM

At the end of the day, McCain was displaced more by events than by a failure to secure his base. The polls were narrowing until the economic crises unraveled. He was poorly positioned for that event, given his own background and choice of Palin. I'm not sure this election was a good test of those theories.

Posted by: MVH at November 5, 2008 6:53 AM

The MSM won this election for their side. Any effort to discern how policy proposals affected the vote is secondary or tertiary at best.

The MSM destroyed W with lies. They saved Clinton from self-destruction by lying. They made Hillary a viable candidate despite a record of extraordinary corruption. And then they turned on her and created a phenom out of thin air with Obama. They are now in the process of destroying Palin.

Policy positions have no meaning in this political environment, mostly because the news media doesn't accurately convey those positions anyway.
Barack Obama has never accomplished anything in his life. Without the MSM running interference for him, he'd be nothing. This election is about the power of propaganda.

Propaganda. The truth never had a chance.

Posted by: stan at November 5, 2008 7:18 AM

I think you are right for the most part Crank, however, in the popular vote, it looks like McCain will have lost by around 2 percentage points, an astonishingly close tally given everything working against him [economy, public's general disapproval of Bush administration, etc.]. I guess my point is, he must have done something right to keep it that close given the environment in which he was running.

Posted by: Doc | at November 5, 2008 7:26 AM

Stan makes a solid point, but I would repond that a single unifying theme--like Reagan-style conservatism--could have fought through the media filters.

There weren't too many people who didn't know the media was in the tank and blatantly showing just how far in the tank they were. What folks didn't see was any single theme they could hang their hats on. Even "Country First", which was as close as McCain got, was diluted by the Palin selection in the eyes of many.

Posted by: spongeworthy at November 5, 2008 7:45 AM

Since when is "mad" synonymous with fuckingignorant (or, for the Palin sycophants out there, fuckin'ignorant)?
From NYC911 to Baghdad to New Orleans to Kabul and back to NYC9/08, this administration has been one continuous disastor for the US and the world.
Democrats deserve their share of the blame, but history didn't start 2 years ago.

Posted by: rs at November 5, 2008 7:50 AM

Crank's right. The base turned out in huge numbers for Obama and he won. Look at the turnout among minorities and young childless voters, both of whom overwhelmingly supported Obama by expoential factors--their turnout was far higher than ever before.

The electoral college was a bloodbath, but the popular vote was close enough that if the Obama base doesn't turn out in record numbers, it's much closer and perhaps McCain evens wins the popular vote.

Posted by: per14 at November 5, 2008 8:41 AM

This election was essentially the reverse of 1980, with a relatively close popular vote skewed by a large electoral college swing. And, as was the case in 1980, it was largely the triumph of people voting against something -- e.g., the incompetence of Carter/Bush II -- rather than necessarily "for" the successful candidate who will claim a transformative mandate. Whether it represents an actual "sea change" in the American electoral landscape will not be confirmed until 2012 (much like it was confirmed in 1984).

This election was not about some "MSM" conspiracy to prop up their favored candidate. It was about ordinary Americans in mid-Atlantic and mid-Western states finally tiring of 8 years of misrule by a collection of right wing extremists who forfeited the Republican Party's longtime claim to competence in government. Are you better off than you were just 8 short years ago? Do you really believe that the country is better off? I don't see how anyone could answer in the affirmative with a straight face.

The Republican Party will survive, and prosper, perhaps as early as 2010. But this election was "this close" because it chose a candidate as attractive as John McCain. Crank's suggestion that the Republicans should have run more toward their base would have been even more disasterous in this case -- as exit polls re: Sarah Palin show. My hope is that this defeat pushes the Republican Party away from the tendencies it has displayed in the last 8 years and more to the invigorated principles of 1984 and 1994.

Posted by: Jonah at November 5, 2008 9:08 AM

I think McCain did about as well as any Republican could have under the circumstances, but there are some aspects in which I agree with the general point. A moderate who needs to spend part of the general election shoring up the base is inherently weakening himself (Obama actually ran further left in the general election than I think he meant to, but he wasn't consciously going for that). And McCain's two decades of courting the center, and the approval of the media, got him nothing, as they almost universally swooned for Obama.

I also think that there's a misconception that you get swing voters by trying to say you believe everything they believe. As Reagan showed, plenty of moderates will vote for someone they don't always agree with if that candidate is clear and honest about what he stands for.

Posted by: Jerry at November 5, 2008 9:31 AM

"As Reagan showed, plenty of moderates will vote for someone they don't always agree with if that candidate is clear and honest about what he stands for."

I agree with you in the sense that the candidate can't pretend to be someone else, but I disagree that moderates will vote for a candidate on that alone.

In many ways this was a mirror image of the Reagan election: a telegenic, media-savvy orator winning after a disasterous presidency by the opposing party. The only reason the popular vote was closer in this one was because the winning candidate really didn't have much of a record to run on, so it was difficult for moderates and others to determine where he stood. And because of this, McCain could have beat him if not for the bad timing of the economic crisis.

Apart from that analysis, I wouldn't draw too many other lessons from this election. It doesn't really answer the theoretical debate, it didn't come down to Palin, and it wasn't because an electorate would have favored a true conservative.

Posted by: MVH at November 5, 2008 10:03 AM

I stand corrected on my comment above. I didn't realize McCain lost by as much as he did in the popular vote.

Jonah -- I would contend that people had a problem with Palin's experience more than Palin's positions.

Posted by: Doc | at November 5, 2008 10:03 AM

Regarding the MSM and propaganda, the most important point to remember is that the MSM does most of its damage when there isn't an election campaign. Over the next year and a half, the GOP won't be running any ads. The only information voters will get is from the MSM. And the lack of an ongoing campaign means that they won't be looking for the bias.

Posted by: stan at November 5, 2008 4:56 PM

McCain should have ran to the center, should have resurrected the McCain of 2000, which really would have separated himself from Bush. Instead he pandered against his own instincts to the far right in his campaign staff realignment and vp selection and messaging. And he got spanked for it. He should have dared his base to vote for Obama if they didnt like his vp selection, and meanwhile kissed the middle's ass.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at November 5, 2008 7:00 PM

I love watching all the full mooners rant and rave because, well, the country turned against them. Read 'em and weep boys. You are the minority now. YES WE CAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

Posted by: Magrooder at November 6, 2008 1:17 AM

Ya-freakin'-hoo!!! It's about time!
Oops. Never mind. I just realized it says "vindicated" not "indicted".

Posted by: Berto at November 6, 2008 10:23 AM

Obama will continue to side with the left till the end. He has always done so, and the elitist illuminati will be telling him what to do, and how to do it.

Posted by: Ms. Know at November 13, 2008 12:15 PM
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