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Saturday, June 16, 2007

GOP Redefining 2006 Election, Pt 1 - The Myth of the Bitter Divide

This week's National Journal cover story, "Open-Field Politics" is written by Michael Barone, long-time author of The Almanac of American Politics. It is a lengthy article that merits considerable discussion and analysis among politically active Americans. He makes some broad observations about recent election results, the current presidential campaign, and the new political playing field that may have emerged from the 2006 midterm results.

Barone is a member of the DC punditocracy and in recent years his analysis has become increasingly biased toward conservative partisan views. He is a semi-regular Fox News talking head and he posts over at Townhall.com. This fact makes it all the more important to review his article, as it reveals how the conservative "thinkers" are hard at work framing the current political climate.

The article should be viewed as part of the ongoing effort to redefine conservatism, reposition the Republican Party, and distance both the movement and party from the failures of the Bush presidency. Glenn Greenwald has discussed the GOP's efforts to repudiate George W. Bush as a real movement conservative.

This is the prism through which Barone's article should be viewed: How is Barone working to frame the midterm defeat and new political realities in a manner that does not doom the Republican Party to minority status?

This analysis will be divided into three posts:

Part I: The Myth of the Bitter Divide, 1995-2005
Part II: The 2006 Midterms - A New Majority?
Part III: A Look to the Future

Part I: The Myth of the Bitter Divide, 1995-2005

When Barone reviews the period between 1995-2005 he engages in a subtle yet thorough revision of recent history. The primary tool he uses is the omission of vital events. He disarms and engages the reader in a manner that should be familiar to any of us who have watched the conservatives manipulate the MSM and pulic opinion in recent years.

He sets a rather disarming tone from the outset. The first two paragraphs of the article begin with the same phrase, "we seem to be entering a new period." Why does he choose this "weak" phrasing? This is rather uncharacteristic, particularly in this bombastic era of the 24-hour cable channels. Is it meant to show less confidence in Barone's analysis? Or, is it an effort to disarm the reader, who after years of screaming talking heads declaring, expects declarative, argumentative statements in our political dialogue?

We seem to be entering a new period in American politics. We have come through a
period of trench warfare, in which two armies of approximately equal size faced each other across the battlefield and tried to rally their sides to achieve the incremental gains that would make the difference between victory or defeat. There were few defections from either army in this culture war, and almost no one crossing the lines. Like the trench warfare of World War I, our politics in this period, which stretched from 1995 to 2005, was a conflict of many bitter battles and no final victories.

Now we seem to be entering a new period, a period of open-field politics. It seems to be a time when there are no permanent alliances, when new leaders arise with new strategies and tactics, when the voters, instead of forming themselves into two coherent and cohesive armies, wander about the field, attaching themselves to one band and then another, with no clear lines of battle and no landmarks to rally beside.

The "weak" opening sentences contrast starkly with the martial metaphor Barone chooses to use in describing the political climate of the past decade. Also, notice the year this "trench warfare" begins. The government shutdown marks the start of this stalemate. While the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred shortly past the midpoint of this period of stalemate, Barone fails to mention this event.

Barone makes no mention of the fact that Americans of all political persuasions rallied to the support of the president. This seems peculiar and outrageous. He neglects to mention that one side in this "bitter battle" was silent, laid down their arms and failed to engage the other side for more than a year. The GOP entered the 2002 midterms full steam ahead, fully engaged against an adversary that actually believed "9/11 changed everything."

It is disingenuous to talk of the trench warfare arising from the culture wars without acknowledging the terrorist attacks. This is pure revisionist history at work. One could argue that without 9/11, the Democrats would have retained control of the Senate, and possibly gained the House in the 2002 midterms. And, it is very likely Bush would have followed in his father's footsteps as a one-term president. Ah, but maybe he'll address this later in the article. Wanna put money on it? In fact, Barone will only mention 9/11 twice:

1) He references the 2006 Democratic platform promise to enact the 9/11 commission report's suggestions into law
2)Reinforces the Rudy as strong leader meme in acknowledging Giuliani's viability in 2008 is a result of his high-profile performance in the days after the attack

We should also note what Barone determines as the cause for this stalemate: the "culture wars" are to blame. He does not mention tax policy, jobs, or the economy. Nor does he identify foreign policy, military intervention, education or health care. The parties have clearly divergent views on many - if not all - of these important questions. But, he singles out the "culture wars" precisely because these are the wedge issues the Republicans have used against Democrats to win close elections. A coincidence? I think not. He is subtly shifting blame for the stalemate toward the Democrats, at least in the minds of the "values voters."

It is also noteworthy to recognize the dates and events that bracket the decade of division. In 1995, the government shutdown marked the beginning of the bitter battles between the two parties. According to Barone, this period did not end until the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. He does not attach any responsibility for either event to a particular party. Simply another harmless omission?

Barone reviews the percentage each party received in the House elections between 1996-2004, repeats the "culture war" argument and then says, "Elections became less a matter of persuading movble voters in the center and more a matter of turning out the party faithful on Election Day." Now, wasn't it Karl Rove that articulated and implemented this "divide and conquer/50% plus 1" strategy? Barone fails to mention this. He wants Americans to assign blame equally between the two parties.

This new period, which Barone describes as "open-field politics" is fluid, with no permanent alliances. The voters are less attached and have no real "landmarks" - or issues - to rally around. Now, does that sound like America today? Perhaps someone should remind Mr. Barone about Iraq. His description of this new period is more applicable to the current state of the Republican Party, not the nation at large. But, it is simply too dangerous for conservatives to acknowledge the schisms are limited to within the GOP.

These serious, pervasive and obvious omissions invalidate much of Barone's analysis. But, to dismiss this writing would be foolish and irresponsible.

The Republicans are in the process of convincing the public and media the following:
1) America has been bitterly and evenly divided between two parties
2) The conflict is rooted in the culture wars (guns, gays and abortion)
3) Neither party is clearly to blame, although if the MSM and public believe the issues of guns, gays and abortion, then Democrats are more likely to be viewed as responsible

All of this must become part of the conventional wisdom for the GOP to remain competitive in upcoming elections.

America has gone through periods of open-field politics in the past, most recently during 1990-1995, Barone states. These periods are marked by unpredictability. Again, this is vital for the GOP to sustain the hopes of their grassroots and financial backers to remain viable.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and MyDD.

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