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A Question-and-Answer Session with Thomas B. Edsall, Author of Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power


Friday, Mar. 09, 2007

Thomas B. Edsall spent twenty-five years covering national politics for the Washington Post, and now writes for a number of publications that try to sort the wheat from the chaff in the Capital City, such as The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Washington Monthly - to mention but a few. Last fall, shortly before the mid-term elections, this veteran political reporter published Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power.

Had the Republicans maintained control of Congress, people would doubtless be poring through this well-researched work to get the answers to why. However, because Democrats regained control, Tom Edsall's work has been largely ignored.

That is a serious mistake. This excellent book deserves to be read, and read carefully - for it remains deeply relevant, now and for the 2008 election.

That's true, in part, because the 2006 mid-term election was not a mandate in favor of Democrats. Rather, it was a mandate against Republicans. It's also a mandate the Republic party is likely to learn from, and respond to, as the Republican Party has historically been very good at learning from its mistakes, recalibrating, and returning stronger than ever. Moreover, nothing that occurred during the 2006 election has dramatically changed the efforts of Republicans to make themselves the permanent ruling party.

Thus, I was glad to have the chance to get the thinking of a seasoned political observer on Republican strategies and politics in general in the following Q & A session with Edsall:

QUESTION: Two of your eight chapters relate to the subject of polarization, and the index shows that the subject is a theme running thorough later chapters as well. Based on your research and reporting, I wonder if you could give a working definition of polarization - or as you saw it when looking at the Republicans?

ANSWER: Polarization is the growing ideological division between the leaders and elected officials of the Democrats and Republicans, between the party platforms, and between the voters who identify with the two parties. Polarization in its contemporary form first became apparent in 1964, but has accelerated sharply in the years since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Prior to 1980, there was considerable overlap on issues between the two parties, with substantial numbers of pro-choice and pro-civil rights Republicans, for example, and many anti-abortion and anti-civil rights Democrats (especially in the South). Now, officials and voters hold consistently conservative views on most social/cultural and economic issues if they are Republicans, and liberal views if they are Democrats.

Q: Your title in Chapter 2 "Anger Points: Polarization as a Republican Strategy." Did your research show that when wedge issues provoke anger they are particularly effective? What are some examples?

A: The Republican Party used many sophisticated data-mining and micro-targeting techniques - culling consumer lists, magazine subscriptions, polling and other information - to develop portraits of individual voters. The goal was to identify likely Republican voters and their "anger points." Issues lending themselves to political manipulation - i.e., issues touching upon anger points -- included gay marriage, welfare, spending for social services, taxes, abortion, and culturally permissive government policies, and government interventions viewed as favoring the interests of ethnic and racial minorities. The GOP found that anger is one of the best motivators for mobilizing political participation.

Q: In Chapter 2, and elsewhere, you reveal a rather significant memorandum that Matt Dowd, who was Bush's top pollster in the 2000 presidential race, sent to Karl Rove - while they were waiting for the ruling in Bush v. Gore. Dowd's memo, it seems, changed history, because it changed the way George Bush decided to govern. Would you explain?

A: Dowd analyzed poll data and found that the percentage of voters who could be classified as genuinely "swing" or persuadable voters had shrunk from roughly 24 percent of the electorate, to 6 percent or less. This meant that developing governing and election strategies geared at building up turnout among base votes became much more important than developing governing and election strategies designed to appeal to swing, or middle-of-the-road, voters. Persuading a non-voting conservative, a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh, or a hunter determined to protect gun rights to register and get to the polls became much more important and more cost effective than going after the voter who is having trouble making up his mind as to which candidate to vote for. The result was the adoption of policies designed to please the base (tax cuts for the wealthy, restricting abortion, appointing very conservative judges, opposition to stem cell research) that ran counter to Bush's 2000 claim to be a "uniter, not a divider."

Q: From the book's endnotes, it appears you interviewed Matt Dowd several times. Did you read his memo to Rove? What was the source of the five decades of data? Did you find it persuasive? Is his memo online anywhere? Maybe the middle is not gone, and is this why the GOP could not hold Congress.

A: The sources of data were primarily exit polls, along with the National Election Studies polling done every election year. I did find Dowd's argument persuasive as a guide to Republican political strategy, and my own examination of the same poll data supported his claims. Dowd has never released the memo, and to my knowledge it is not available. The polarization strategy works only for Republicans, because the percentage of voters who identify themselves as "conservatives" is much larger than the percentage of self-identified "liberals." Democrats must use a swing vote strategy and appeal to the middle in order to keep Democratic-leaning moderates in the fold.

Q: Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post (Jul. 12, 2006) has the following quote from Matt Dowd, which sounds like Dowd has turned against polarization: "The perceived polarization that exists in this country ... is not a good thing," said Matthew Dowd. Dowd is also a founder of Did this arise in your research? Any reactions?

A: Dowd became involved with the project after I finished writing the book. The goal of the new project is just the opposite of the strategy he, Karl Rove, and others developed after the 2000 election. I have not asked Matt if he had a change of mind.

Q: Tell us why polarization works for Republicans but not for Democrats? Or do Democrats use it?

A: See above. Democrats, along with all politicians, use polarizing tactics, but not as successfully or as intensively as the GOP. Democrats have used Social Security and Republican privatization proposals to win over elderly voters, and have portrayed the GOP as anti-civil rights in efforts to build support among black and other minority voters.

Q: What, as you see it, is the impact of polarization on Washington?

A: Polarization has made it very difficult for the national government in Washington to build broad support for any policy. It has also made it more difficult to come to agreement on such pressing issues as immigration, trade policy and energy conservation.

Q: What, if any, did the 2006 election require the GOP to do to adjust their plans for a permanent majority, or to adjust any of the steps and action you had set forth in your book? Also, are you doing, or have done, and post-election chapter, if so, when will it be published?

A: I am working on a new introduction for the paperback edition, which should be coming out sometime in the summer. The Republican Party is regrouping and currently lacks a strong leader. The selection of the 2008 nominee will determine the short-term, and perhaps long-term, strategies that the party will adopt.

Q: As I read your book, I added marginalia every time I saw polarization activity that had a negative consequence on the system. I have about two dozen such margin marks. How would you characterize the negative consequences of polarization on our political system?

A: In some ways, polarization is healthy because it gives voters real choices. This benefit comes at the cost of building a national consensus at a time when terrorism, globalization, and other issues demand the capacity to reach broad agreement, a willingness to compromise, and the capacity to see the legitimacy of the arguments of the opposition

Q: I noticed that you traced polarization back to Nixon's first term in office, and discovered some of Buchanan's memos, as well as Spiro T. Agnew's speeches. Would you agree that by today's standards, Nixon played soft-ball?

A: Yes, but Nixon and his aides could be pretty tough.

Q: What is the largest impact of the 2006 election on the master plan of Republicans to build a party and coalition that can keep permanent control of Washington? And what adjustments to you see them making for 2008?

A: The 2006 election was a major setback for the GOP. Bush's conduct of the Iraq War has undermined a crucial Republican strength: the preference of voters for the GOP on national defense issues, and trust in the GOP in times of war and foreign conflict. The problem right now for the Republican Party is that the Democrats have the initiative, and the Republicans have to wait for the Democrats to falter. The Democrats have done so often in the past, but it is uncertain what will happen over the next 21 months until November 2008.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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