A Target-Rich Environment

Karl Rove made a habit of employing this strategy in the salad days of the Bush revolution: draw out the more voluble, more controversial, more trigger-happy Democratic voices and use them reductively, cutting off more legitimate debate with more legitimate Democrats. Rove had two goals in mind. Calling out liberal bugbears is like using cattle prods on the hindquarters of the conservative base. It wakes them up, gets them paying attention, and helps them rally around the protagonist.  Rove was also focused on Americans with fewer partisan attachments; nothing pulls independents away from the center like an opposition party that's lost its moorings. And this worked for a while.

One of the reasons why Barack Obama's political team is so confident -- "arrogant," as Rove would say today, in their success is that even while some of Obama's signature policies are viewed with healthy skepticism, Republicans are still splashing around in a fetid wading pool. Obama has room to maneuver because Republicans are giving him room. And while Rove was a master at strategic communications, his lessons didn't seem to stick. Take the appearances in the public square of Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. Cheney remains the principle exponent of Republican national security policy. A lot of Republicans now disagree with the Cheney Doctrine, but because President Bush left no real political heirs, and because no real independent, conservative foreign policy voice has emerged, Cheney's grumbles echo. (Sen. Dick Lugar is a voice, but he is not a partisan persuader. Rudy Giuliani has been fairly silent since the demise of his presidential campaign.)  The Democratic National Committee could not be more delighted to treat Cheney as the primary political enemy and foil. Each time Cheney opens his mouth, the DNC -- or Robert Gibbs, if he's in the mood -- finds a way to reduce Republican opposition to President Obama's plans to the words of someone who is very unpopular with most Americans.  (A side note: Cheney, smarter than the average elephant, understands this. He has his legacy to defend. He is worried not about criminal prosecution; rather, if the Obama mindset over next four-to-eight years sets in, Dick Cheney, a guy who most Americans don't like, will be the Dick Cheney that Andrew Sullivan knows: truly infamous and even wretched; someone who sanctioned torture; someone who abused executive power with relish. Obama's Justice Department may soon renounce the legal foundations upon which Cheney's policies were constructed and may even cite the former administration's lawyers for misconduct.  If they do this -- once they do this -- the edifice will be nothing but dust.)

And since the GOP is a PINO -- a Party In Name Only at this point, other Republicans unwittingly pile on. When Rush Limbaugh told the Conservative Political Action Conference audience that he wanted Obama to fail, Republican Senators rebuked him, thus extending the story. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, called Limbaugh "incendiary," later apologized, and later, in a trendy, post-modern way, said that he meant what he said all along.  Limbaugh's ratings have surged since the White House made him the subject of their derision, which is exactly what the White House wanted. The more Republicans identify with Limbaugh, the better; the more Republicans apologize for Limbaugh, the better. To the Obama team, Limbaugh embodies Clinton-era conservatism to most Americans. I would bet that the DNC has polled on this, although I don't know for certain.

When Cheney insisted that Obama's policies were making America less safe, conservative House Republicans like Zach Wamp were frustrated that "the people who led us yesterday" still seemed to represent the Republican Party. But as Wamp knows, the bench is short and uncomfortable to sit on.

So as Democrats focus on Limbaugh, Cheney and Rove, the result is a twofer; remind independents of why they voted for change and continue to perpetuate the Republican identity crisis.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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