The Heartland Versus Bush?

I had a public conversation last Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, about conservatism and the elections with NPR's Steve Paulson and Brian Mann in a theater. Mann's new book, "Welcome to the Homeland" is a guide to the reality of rural America and its emerging political power. I was so impressed with his knowledge and insight I've already dug in to the book and recommend it. One of the things Mann emphasizes is how the electoral college and the Senate strongly favor rural areas over urban ones in American politics and how the Republican gerrymandering of the past decade or so has accentuated this still further by wedging in small majorities of rural voters in seats that might otherwise be dominated by suburban and urban (i.e. Democratic) voters. The appeal to the rural vote is critical to the Bush-Rove Welcometothehomeland Republican party, which is why they have abandoned trying to persuade the suburban middle classes and devoted most of their resources to appealing to the rural vote on hot button social issues - abortion, same-sex unions - and on patriotic values, like war and terror. The key to the narrow Republican victories in the past three election cycles has been increasing turnout among these voters. Bush and Rove haven't persuaded, in other words. They've mobilized.

This is familiar ground, But Mann fills it with impressive detail and nuance. And he makes a further point. If these rural voters were to abandon the current GOP, or stay home in sizable numbers, then the entire strategy collapses. Many, many more seats would fall to the Dems than most of us now expect. Republicans have lost a lot of support in the suburbs and cities this past decade and a half - making them more than ever dependent on the rural base and exurbs. The Foley affair has rattled this base in many ways. But the key issue that keeps them in the fold is the war. Rural voters with deep traditional values often send a disproportionate share of soldiers to defend all of us. Their sacrifice is inspiring. But if the hard truth of this war - and the appalling way in which it has been handled - were to seriously sink in with the rural community, the payback could be huge.

Right now, they are there with the president, proud, patriotic, and every casualty another reason to "stay the course" - in part to honor the fallen. The real reason Bush cannot level with Americans about the actual state of the war is that it would mean that this argument implodes. It would mean that thousands of rural sons and daughters have lost their lives or been seriously wounded because of Bush's incompetence, arrogance and fecklessness. That is too much for many to admit right now. They are too emotionally committed to victory. It is hard to believe that your son or daughter died for a cause this president bungled. And so they buckle under, do their duty, and keep the faith. And their motives in this are good and honorable.

But if the facade cracks, if these rural voters begin to believe they have been misled, or their president has been criminally negligent in the conduct of this war, then the rock-solid patriotic support could become something else. It would not fade into indifference. It could turn in an instant into rage. That's why Bush cannot concede real error. It might please people like me, but it would tell the rural base that their enormous sacrifices have been in vain. And so he will wait till after the election to tell the whole truth. It's shrewd, smart politics - but morally and ethically of a piece with this man's record.