Karl Rove Re-Aligned

Bye bye, Turd Blossom. Karl Rove's dream of refashioning the American political landscape and ushering in a generation of Republican rule is officially dead. The radical Republican revolution, which began with Barry Goldwater, hit paydirt with Ronald Reagan and reached its highwater mark with the 1994 Contract With America, has come to a screeching halt, and it's largely the fault of George W's consigliere.

Make no mistake: when Rove was good, he was very, very good. He understood exactly how to manipulate, divide and intimidate the electorate so he could eke out the narrowest of winning margins -- the 50 per cent plus one model, which was as much as the radical Republican policy agenda was ever going to muster. But divisiveness will only take you so far. Politics is, above all, the art of coalition building. Without the Rehnquist Supreme Court, without a supine Democratic Party in opposition and, above all, without 9/11, he would never have made it even this far.

When Rove was first gearing Bush up for the White House, his model was the 1896 election that ushered in 30 years of Republican dominance at the federal level, smashed the Populist movement that might otherwise have formed the basis of a European-style party of labor, and slowly refashioned the Republicans themselves into the party of big business and deregulation, not the more inclusive values of its Lincolnian origins.

Rove was certainly right to see divisiveness as a major part of the 1896 watershed. The country was literally split into two, with the segregationist Democrats asserting one-party rule in the old confederate South and the Republicans taking control just about everywhere else. His mistake, though, was to identify too closely with Mark Hanna, the Ohio business entrepreneur who guided William McKinley to the presidency. Hanna may have been a unfettered free-market Republican, but McKinley was not. This was, in fact, the onset of the Progressive Era, which started under McKinley, flourished under Teddy Roosevelt and continued until America's entry into World War One. When the more conservative, Hanna-friendly wing of the party took over in the 1920s, it spelled the beginning of the end, culiminating in the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.

Under Rove, the Republicans have compressed the 30-year arc of a century ago into a scant six years. And now the party's over. The Democrats may still be unsure what they stand for, but in terms of campaign strategy they have successfully played catch-up. Howard Dean's controversial 50-state approach - modelled in part on the grassroots legwork the Republicans started in the 1960s and 1970s - made it possible for Democrats to seize the initiative even in states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Wyoming where, for the past four years, they were largely absent. Having been burned by state ballot initiatives on gay marriage and abortion in 2004, which drew the Republican faithful to the polls, the Democrats fought back this time with initiatives of their own on stem cell research and the minimum wage.

The Republicans themselves, meanwhile, are quickly understanding that the only way to recover from the drubbing they've just received is to move back to the center, and fast. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already figured that out -- ditching the hard-right rhetoric that led him to humiliation in last year's special election in California and making common cause with the Democrats on everything from global warming to new infrastructure bonds. The Governator was rewarded for his bipartisanship with a landslide re-election victory - making him the happiest Republican in America this week by quite some distance. Schwarzenegger, never one to suffer an excess of modesty, has even ditched the GOP red white and blue colors for a softer green and orange. Consensus and coalition-building is his new watchword. If the Republican have any sense, they'll follow Arnold's lead.

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