The Year of Karl Rove


Los Angeles Times

December 31, 2004

Cartoonists like to depict the departing year as a stooped and bearded old man, inevitably greeting his diapered replacement with a bit of comic advice. This year the old guy would have to be drawn with his arm in a sling and blackened eyes, his "2004" banner patched and torn in a dozen places. Combat has been the theme of the year — from the bloody streets of Iraq to the political and even NBA arenas.

Democratic societies have always been characterized by a split between left and right (or North and South, or urban and rural, or X religion and Y religion) and always will be. Election years always sharpen these divisions. But in 2004, America's political schism became a gulf — maybe not so wide as in times of enormous strife like the Vietnam era or the years before the Civil War, but far wider than it's been in recent memory.

Credit belongs to Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political guru, for disregarding the textbook notion that successful presidential candidates need to relentlessly tack toward the center. He realized that an incumbent could win by exploiting the differences in our society, and hence the Bush administration got a clear mandate for the next four years — to protect the nation from the scourge of gay marriage. Sure, Bush pledged after his win to heal the rift — at least until he started crowing about all the "political capital" he'd accumulated — but we're not hopeful the sequel will turn out any different than the first go-around.

The country isn't in its current state just because urbanites and middle Americans have different values. That has always been the case, yet there was a time when they were able to find common ground more often, when the voices of extremists were quieter and politicians were more willing to compromise. There is doubtless more than one reason for the change, but one of the more serious ones is the lack of competitiveness in our democracy.

Not only are states increasingly locked into the red or blue camp — only New Mexico, New Hampshire and Iowa switched sides between the 2000 and 2004 presidential balloting — the political class has ensured that most legislative districts nationwide are now monopolies of one faction or the other. Only seven incumbents in the House of Representatives lost on Nov. 2. Most contests weren't even close; just 37 winners of House races received 55% or less of the vote, compared with 62 in 2000.

If the situation is bad nationwide, it's worse in California, where not a single seat in the state Senate or Assembly changed party affiliation. This occurred because of districts whose maps were drawn after 2000 by parties interested solely in retaining what they already had. A world of districts made up overwhelmingly of conservative or liberal voters is Karl Rove's fantasy come true, where candidates with the most extreme views tend to win.

2004 was a year when color was once again an insurmountable barrier between Americans — only instead of black and white, now it's about red versus blue.