Karl Rove is no idiot. I realize this observation sounds obvious. But it bears repeating -- often -- as Democrats and Washington's chattering class become increasingly excited about conservatives' increasingly public criticism of the Bush administration.
Perhaps more than any other field, politics embraces the kick-a-guy-when-he's-down outlook. Thus, with W. suffering a popularity slump due to his breathtakingly mismanaged Iraq odyssey, it's unsurprising that many on the right have begun to grouse about other Bush moves that they see as ideologically impure.
Sure, the tax cuts were great. But what about the massive deficits run up on W.'s watch? The White House can jaw about the cost of fighting terrorism all it wants, but a budget analysis conducted by, of all folks, the Heritage Foundation indicates that less than half of new spending under Bush has been related to defense or homeland security. Conservatives are less than thrilled about the president's big-government prescription-drug bill -- not to mention his noxious, federally intrusive No Child Left Behind program. And speaking of intrusive, a colorful mix of right-wingers (including the leadership of the Eagle Forum, the American Conservative Union, and the Free Congress Foundation) think the Patriot Act could use some serious tweaking before John Ashcroft starts implanting spy-cams in everyone's underpants.
Concerns about Bush's conservative cred won't be eased by the fact that members of his own party have launched legislative crusades in conflict with administration positions. Georgia ex-Congressman Bob Barr is lobbying hard for an overhaul of the Patriot Act, while Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook keeps pestering Majority Leader Tom Delay for a vote on a balanced budget amendment. Realistically, such an amendment has about as much chance of victory this year as Dennis Kucinich. But a vote on the issue -- something Delay reportedly promised Istook just before the Memorial Day recess -- could prove uncomfortable for both the White House and congressional conservatives, as Democrats began musing about how the deficits got so big, what draconian cuts would be needed to achieve a balanced budget, and why, exactly, so many Republicans spent so many months arguing that deficits don't matter.
The anti-Bush forces are understandably giddy about W.'s intraparty blues. For one thing, it must come as a tremendous relief to discover that even this president's Teflon coating will get sticky if enough mud is splashed on it. (Who could have predicted Chalabi would turn out to be this big a sleazeball?) More broadly, Democrats have grown accustomed to being the party of self-destructive, internecine bloodletting. For them, the very idea of Republicans publicly savaging one another is the political equivalent of free porn.
But this brings us back to my original reality check: Karl Rove is no idiot. The dark wizard is well aware of his president's troubles, and -- even as the Beltway boys and girls obsess over Iraq -- Team Bush is furiously sucking up to the base on domestic issues. Just this week, W. delivered a keep-the-faith barn-burner to nearly 2,000 religious leaders and social service workers assembled in Washington for the White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his best preacher's voice, Bush spoke of souls lost and found, the power of the Good Book, and the need to surrender one's life to "a higher being." But his larger goal: Reminding the audience of what a key friend he has been. Stressing his commitment to government funding of religious groups, Bush noted that, when an obstinate Congress tried to block his plans, he outsmarted them by signing an executive order. (Take that, you godless legislators!)
The more illuminating speech, however, came from Jim Towey, Bush's faith-based czar, who helpfully focused the crowd on the fierce "culture war" still raging in this country. Iraq may be getting all the press these days, he allowed, "but there's also another war that's going on ... that really gets to the heart of the questions about what is the role of faith in the public square." If the anti-Bush forces wind up carrying the day, Towey reportedly warned, "you could almost wind up creating a godless orthodoxy." For peddling such divisive, partisan rhetoric at an official White House event, Towey most likely earned a cookie and a pat on the back from the dark wizard.
But the faith-based conference/revival was just one stop on Team Bush's crusade. Last week, the president met with several members of the religious media. This week, during a trip West, he was scheduled to swing by Colorado Springs to kiss the ring of evangelical powerbroker James Dobson. Finally -- and perhaps most impressively -- on Thursday The New York Times broke the news that the Bush campaign is working to recruit literally thousands of "Friendly Congregations" to aid its reelection efforts by identifying volunteers willing to distribute campaign materials, facilitate voter registration, and pray for a plague of frogs to paralyze blue-state voting on election day. (Just kidding about that last part.) In Pennsylvania alone, 1,600 churches have been contacted.
This move, at least, captured the attention of Democrats, who promptly fired off outraged emails accusing the Bushies of mixing church and state. The Dems are right to be furious -- and terrified. Rove has long vowed to make sure evangelical voters turn out this year in far greater numbers than in 2000. And every new Iraq failure makes it that much more important for Team Bush to remind social conservatives who is with them on hot-button issues like gay marriage and partial-birth abortion -- home-grown moral atrocities that inflame the right far more than anything that went down at Abu Ghraib.
The Bush campaign is unlikely to spread this particular message via a nationwide TV ad blitz, since such aggressive moralizing might give swing voters the willies. But they will spread it through every conservative broadcaster, religious publisher, and "friendly congregation" they can find. A mighty army of religious warriors is being assembled on the president's behalf. With this in mind, the Kerry camp had better not get too wrapped up in Iraq (or Vietnam). This is a two-front war. And Team Bush is working hard to convince Americans that -- as in all battles -- God is on its side.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at TNR.
By Michelle Cottle