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Rove's Revolution: Bash, Break and Borrow

Rove's Revolution: Bash, Break and Borrow

By Stirling Newberry
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 25 April 2005

It won't be written on in the New York Times, nor will it be read by a newscaster on Fox News, but the left deserves to pat itself on the back and say "I told you so" about one of the most important events of recent years. I remember being in Florida during the election fight of 2000, holding a sign that said "Federal Constitution RIP." In the weeks that followed, the television told the story that it had been a "tie election," and pundits duly noted that Bush would have to "govern from the center," since he had a thin majority in the House, and the Senate was divided equally. The conventional wisdom of the day was that we were to have moderate, almost divided government. The view from the ground level was very different: even then, Bush was perceived as a radical, surrounded by radical advisors, who would not govern from the center, as befits someone who has barely squeaked into power, but from the hard right. The often-expressed fear was that Bush and his circle intended to change the very nature of America's constitutional order. [1]

Now, of course, it is conventional wisdom that we are in a moment of constitutional turbulence, in which the changes made to our constitutional order to accommodate the New Deal are under threat, and constitutional balancing mechanisms, such as the filibuster, are under attack. But, as importantly, we are speaking in constitutional terms: the debate over Social Security introduced us to "infinite time horizons" and arguments over where America would be two generations from now. From worry about what would happen to the budget this year, and how long it would take to get out of Iraq, to worrying about the far horizons of the future is a very large step indeed. Perhaps this language is less stirring than the Preamble to the Constitution of 1787, but it is, nonetheless, constitutional and not legislative language.

We usually think that great moments in nation building happened long ago. We read about the founding fathers, the renewal of the nation after the Civil War, or the New Deal, and feel that such moments in time are distant from our political reality, which is generally thought to be concerned with whether this judge will incrementally crimp particular rights, or whether that program should be given another 100 million dollars. But this is not the case for everyone: more and more there is a belief in America that we have reached a constitutional moment. For some, it was the impeachment in the late 1990s, for others, the election of 2000 - but now, with the debate over Social Security, it should be apparent to everyone. A nation that is arguing over 75 years in the future is engaged in a constitutional debate, in which the normal political calculus of what happens this year, next year, and perhaps five years ahead is all that matters.

That America has passed through great constitutional changes since the Constitution of 1787 was drafted is not a new idea. Most famously, Professor Bruce Ackerman of Yale,[2] in his two volume work We the People, argued that constitutional change is a process, and that three times in American history, there has been a moment in which the basic fabric of the constitutional order was in play. That the Civil War and the New Deal mark moments where the res publica, the public order, has changed. I have argued that we are living in one such moment now. But there is someone else who has believed we are in a time of constitutional change - perhaps you have heard of him: his name is Karl Rove, the man who is, in effect, George W. Bush's domestic policy Czar.

There are three basic pillars of constitutional order: the mandate of the government, the meaning which binds the people and the government together, and the mechanism by which the government pursues the mandate given to it by the people. Of the various mechanisms, money is the most important, though not in the crude sense merely of who gets money, but how money works, how it is created. Money determines, to no small extent, the incentives and range of actions that an individual has available to him.

The New Deal instituted a new kind of money, money based on assets that banks could show on their books, and backed by the Federal Reserve and deposit insurance. One of the key programs that the New Deal used to make this new kind of money work was Social Security. This money replaced the gold-backed money of the previous constitutional order, and changed, fundamentally, the way America worked as a nation. The mandate of the government was to balance the economy; the meaning was based on consensus for action; if there was a problem, or even a potential problem, then the public sense was that it had to be met head on.

Karl Rove has, more than any other single political operative, been responsible for designing a means of attacking that political order, and he has, in no small measure, accomplished this. Gone is the great spirit of bi-partisanship that dominated government from the chaotic early days of 1933 when "we weren't Democrats or Republicans, just Americans trying to save the banking system," in the words of one treasury official.

This cycle of American constitutional change, in which financial crisis leads, first, to a reactionary attempt to force the old system to work, has been seen three times before. Before the Constitution of 1787 was the financial crisis of the 1780s and the Articles of Confederation. Before the Civil War was a massive financial panic, and the infamous Dredd Scott decision, which overturned the Compromise of 1850, and opened the Great Plains to slavery. And before FDR were Hoover's futile attempts to save the gold standard and a government which was less involved in the economy than in religion.

This reactionary order has always failed in the past, because it must consume every cent of the economy. That is its nature: it is an attempt to preserve rent, which is any economic advantage that comes from position in time or space, even if it must sink the entire national surplus in the attempt. This is why the Republicans must borrow to effectively abolish Social Security; Rove knows that in order to secure Republican domination for a generation or more, he must place a weight on the back of government so heavy that no one can remove it. Should a Democrat manage to take the White House, then all that need happen is that a Republican Congress stop doing the behind-the-scenes juggling that keeps the economy going, a recession will ensue, and the Oval office will return to Republican control.

In the past, similar attempts have resulted in the bottom falling out of the economy, and a new political mandate, often one born of fire and crisis. The Civil War was such a crisis; the Great Depression was such a crisis.

Rove's strategy is to create a three-tier attack on the old order, and on anyone who would prevent his new order. That three-tier attack unifies the reactionary elements in society, by providing each one with a specific role to fulfill. His plan can be stated in three words: Bash, Break and Borrow.

The first part is the most visible: bashing is simply the demonization of any political opponent. Whether the Swift Boat Veterans, or the recent USANext advertisement that accused the AARP, of all groups, of being pro-gay marriage and anti-soldier. Identify the political enemy with objects of political fear and loathing. The problem of bashing has haunted the intellectual left - in What's the Matter with Kansas, Frank Thomas ponders why, in his view, so many people in the heartland vote against their economic interests in favor of such shallow bashing.

However, bashing by itself is of only short-term effect. Newt Gingrich's bomb throwers were expert bashers, and while they could terrorize and paralyze government, they could not reorganize it. In order to make substantial changes, the Republican party needed to break the New Deal and all of the mechanisms which made it work. From bipartisanship to government regulation to use of deliberative expert policy, a relentless attack on the way the old political order came to decisions was the order of the day. One of the best books to see this process at work is Paul Krugman's Peddling Prosperity, a thorough debunking of "supply side economics" of the Reagan Administration, but more importantly, of the whole way in which carefully vetted ideas contended among experts for the change to be the basis of policy. Instead, academia was merely lipstick to put on the pig that was already being greased down the shaft.

But even this turned out not to be enough. Even with a massive series of revenue reductions and the terrorist attack of 9/11, it was not enough to fundamentally hobble opposition. Eventually, the terror of the attacks wore down, and the attempt to grab a cheap supply of oil by invading Iraq turned into a slow and bloody fiasco, whose only benefit politically was that the Congress was sure to vote 80 billion dollars that could be used as pork to bolster the Republican party any place where people were dependent on the military budget as their basic industry.

In short, Rove knew he had to borrow. Not merely borrow the 4% of GDP that the revenue reductions of 2001, 2003 and 2004 required, but the staggering sums that closing Social Security would require. It is a political move that is the Dredd Scott of our time. Before the Civil War, wealthy southerners stored wealth in slaves. Slaves would grow with the whole economy, because they had children: so long as slave agriculture could keep expanding. But in 1850 a line was drawn saying that there would be no slavery north of that line. Texas and Kansas were the last states that could be admitted below this line where slave agriculture could work. When a financial panic hit, this was no longer enough. The slave owning classes needed to consume the rest of the continent to expand into. They had to have it all. It was this that broke the nation into two, and would lead to a radical transformation of government.

Everything the Republicans do is part of this three-tier attack: everything advances bashing, breaking or borrowing. Each requires a different, but linked, response. The idea of constitutional crisis is not far from the public's mind, even though those words are never spoken in the broadcast media. The very notion of talking about 75 year consequences and "infinite time horizons" is the modern equivalent of "our posterity" and "indissoluble union." When people talk about forever, they are talking about the constitutional arrangements which bind them together.

That we are talking about constitutional change can be seen by the nature of the Social Security Debate: the very move to talk about public policy in 75 year time frames means that, whether Americans know it or not, they are talking about the new republic. 75 years is roughly the length of an American governmental order - and this is why Social Security is the object of debate.

It is the debt that the Liberal Democracy used to keep everyone - liberal and conservative - in line. It bars any policy that will break the system. Some, like Ross Perot, warned of unfunded mandates in the trillions - without realizing what it meant. These mandates were not troublesome to meet - so long as everyone stayed restrained within a band of policy. But they were the sword of Damocles for anyone seeking more radical change - either to the left or the right.

This is why Karl Rove, newly ensconced as the domestic policy advisor to George Bush in his second term, has targeted Social Security and the judiciary as the two great agenda items for Republicans. As with the invasion of Iraq and reducing tax revenues, the great agenda items of the first term, he is willing to suffer a series of rebuffs, in order to eventually seize the appropriate moment and push through the changes that he desires to make.

Rove's agenda then is to take his vision of a different constitutional order, and marry it to political tactics that work within that order. He is attempting to make a coherent set of changes that will force governments that come after this one to adhere to the broad outlines of the kind of state that is now being established. These outlines include a nation that props up the stock market as the place where people keep most of their savings, much as uninsured banks were the place people kept their savings before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was established in 1933 as part of the "First Hundred Days." And a nation that has a very different relationship to God than before. The God of the old order was a symbolic one, to which the nation gave thanks, but, as Roosevelt outlined in the Four Freedoms speech in 1941, according to the freedom of their own conscience. The God of Rove's Republic is a very different sort, a figure that is the source of punitive law, and that overrides any other agreements or laws. [3]

The political tactics rest squarely on the permission that this different conception of God rests upon; rather than the government being charged with insuring plenty, it is charged with ensuring conformity. The upholders of the faith are also the political enforcers of the Republican Party. To win the Republican Party's nomination for President, as Senator Bill Frist is trying to do now, requires securing its good graces. And it is Rove's intent to create a permanent political coalition where only a Republican can win the White House.

Rove entered the White House believing that this was a constitutional moment, and many of the people who have opposed Bush from the beginning believed it as well. And now, perhaps belatedly, it has become generally understood that this moment is one in which the basic nature of our government is in play, where the very stuff of the constitution is open to being shaped by the decisions that are made, or left unmade.


[1] The first chapter of The Fourth Republic can be found at:

[2] His website is here: and both books are landmarks in the understanding of American history.

[3] For a look into how viscerally connected the filibuster fight is with the religious right's agenda, you should listen to the audio stream on this site:


Stirling Newberry is an internet business and strategy consultant, with experience in international telecom, consumer marketing, e-commerce and forensic database analysis. He has acted as an advisor to Democratic political campaigns and organizations and is the the co-founder, along with Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen and Matt Stoller, of BopNews, as well as being the military affairs editor of The Agonist.

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