Cracking the Conservatives

Bush's Vulnerabilities and the Seeds of Progressive Revival

By Robert Borosage

Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, is on a roll. His president enjoys high poll ratings, despite the doldrums in the economy and the chaos in Iraq. Republicans in the Congress march in lock step. The packing of the judiciary with reactionary activists is advancing. The Republican party is raking in more money than it can spend. A potent right-wing political machine enforces discipline, echoes the prescribed sound bites and blisters any opponents. 9/11 and Iraq have been exploited for partisan purposes and the press hasn't seemed to notice.

And on the other side, the Democratic Leadership Council is strafing liberals again, as though stuck in 1984 forever. As Adam Clymer reports, Republicans increasingly believe that Rove's ultimate fantasy -- forging an enduring conservative coalition that can dominate for decades -- is now within reach.

What is missing from this hagiography is that the emperor has no clue. George Bush and the "movement conservatives" that drive his administration have never been more powerful. But they simply have no answers for the challenges that now face this country.

Over the past two years, the United States has witnessed a staggering reversal of fortune. We've gone from peace and prosperity to war and recession. We've suffered the worst act of terror on US soil ever, the most costly stock market collapse ever, the biggest corporate crime wave since the Gilded Age, the most severe trade deficits. States and cities are suffering from the largest fiscal crisis in over 50 years. And we've gone from record budget surpluses to record deficits overnight. American families pay the price for this. Wages are declining; unemployment is rising. Health care is broken. Retirement plans are shattered. Schools are laying off teachers and shutting down after-school programs. The cost of college is soaring. More and more Americans are struggling simply to make ends meet.

Bush and his movement conservatives have no solutions to these problems. Their mantra, of course, is smaller government, lower taxes, strong military, traditional values. But our government is already the smallest of any industrial nation, our taxes the lowest, our military the strongest, our people among the most devout. We've already been there and done that.

In the absence of fixes, the White House offers excuses. They say the president is not to blame, and to some extent that's true -- he didn't cause 9/11 or the recession or the stock market crash.

For most families, however, Bush's policies are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Declining wages and rising inequality are accelerated by his relentless war on labor, opposition to minimum wage, attack on overtime and the 40-hour week, and tax giveaways to the wealthy. His health-care plan is a payoff to the drug companies and the insurance companies, exacerbating soaring health-care costs.

After the stock market crashed, workers discovered that corporations had dramatically slashed their contributions to worker retirement funds in the switch from guaranteed pensions to private savings plans. Now Bush wants to do the same with Social Security and Medicare, using privatization as a cover for slashing government's contribution. And, remarkably, this president wants to build schools in Iraq but not in the United States, and broke even his own promise on funding for education.

The reality is that conservative policies have dominated the last two decades of US policy. Many of the challenges we face -- corporate crime, inequality, the trade imbalance, declining wages, overcrowded schools, public squalor -- are the unintended consequences of those policies.

The plans that got us into this fix surely won't get us out. Worse, Bush has given his administration over to the most extreme reactionary elements of the GOP, while embracing a brazen crony capitalism to reward those who fund the party. His fiscal policy is guided by zealots who want to use tax cuts to eviscerate the government. Or as the conservative Financial Times editorial page put it, "the lunatics are in charge of the asylum."

The president's judicial appointments are vetted by Federalist Society extremists who want reactionary judicial activists to outlaw proactive governing, overturning not only women's right to choose and civil rights, but the New Deal itself, eliminating government's authority to protect consumers, workers or the environment. As Cas Sunstein of the conservative University of Chicago Law School put it, "They want to restore the status quo ante from about 1934. ... It's a radical agenda." Bush's foreign policy is given over to neo-conservative ideologues who openly champion a new American empire, while abandoning 50 years of bipartisan American alliance-building and international cooperation. As Ted Sorenson, respected advisor to John Kennedy, put it, this is not a "new realism," but an expression of "the arrogance of power and the ignorance of history."

And much of the rest is simply special-interest corruption -- an energy policy defined by and for big oil, a prescription drug policy by and for the drug companies, an environmental policy catering to the polluters' lobby. When given a clear choice, a broad majority of Americans favor a far different course than that pursued by this administration. Americans want to save Social Security and Medicare, not privatize them. They prefer investment in schools and health care over more tax breaks. They want to hold corporations accountable, raise the minimum wage and empower workers, rather than surrender to corporate self-regulation. They want to restore the environment rather than erode the protections that are in place.

Rove is smart enough to know this. That's why Bush doesn't trumpet his conservativism the way Gingrich did. Instead, he drums on patriotism, dresses up like a reformer on domestic issues and resorts to Orwellian distortions and straight up lies to disguise his policies. With money, special-interest support, and the formidable right-wing political machine, Bush and Rove have created a publicly popular White House -- for now. But deception and disguise are no way to forge an enduring majority coalition. We are at the end of their era, not the beginning of it.

That's why those who counsel Democrats to cut loose their loyalists and drift to the right have it wrong. We need a big argument about the course this country's on -- and Democrats would benefit most from forcing it. Do we want a smaller government dominated by corporate lobbies, or one that is on your side? Do we want to free up corporations and CEOs, or empower workers and support small investors, consumers and the environment? Police the world alone or return to the polices that made this country strong -- alliances, international law, sharing the burdens and seeking to be a source of hope and not of fear? A society where each is on his or her own, or where families gain vital security in an economy of increasing flux, starting with health care, education and training, and retirement security? Do we want a corporate-defined trade policy that ships good jobs abroad while racking up unsustainable deficits, or balanced trade that will spread the blessings of the global economy?

To drive such a debate, Democrats would do well to learn from how the New Right responded to life in the political wilderness in the mid-1970s, when Nixon was in disgrace and Democrats controlled everything. At that moment, New Right strategists decided not to drift to the center but to build an independent capacity to drive their message, their values and their movement into the political debate. They sought to take over the Republican party from green-eyeshade moderates and make it their vehicle. They built the Heritage Foundation, an openly right-wing propaganda center. They invested in the Moral Majority, galvanizing the right-wing evangelical movement. They nailed together a network of conservative PACs, led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee. They mobilized a movement that transformed not only the Republican Party but the national political debate as well.

The rise of the New Right wasn't solely due to its own organizing. Liberalism failed to answer the challenges facing the country in the 1970s -- stagflation, growing pressures on families, moral decline, America held hostage. And the successes and excesses of the triumphant movements of the 1960s generated a furious reaction that the fueled the New Right. But only by organizing independently was the right able to grab the opportunity created by these dynamics.

Fast forward three decades. Today, conservatism is failing to meet the challenges facing the country. And the excesses of the self-described "movement conservatives" who dominate this administration are generating an impassioned response from those under attack -- workers, women, minorities, environmentalists.

Now progressives must build the independent capacity to drive that energy into the primetime political conversation. And force a large debate about this country's direction.

If Americans are given a choice, Karl Rove would not like the result.

Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future, 1025 Connecticut Ave NW Ste 205, Washington DC 200036; email Web site: This originally appeared at

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