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2006-09-13

The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century

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Journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten discuss their new book, "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century." In it, they reveals how the Republican party owns a clear advantage in the fundamentals of campaigning and has built up a series of structural advantages that make it increasingly difficult to beat. [includes rush transcript]

Tuesday’s primaries set the stage for November’s battle for control of Congress. Democrats are trying to pick up the six Senate seats and fifteen House seats that will give them majorities in each chamber.

In the face of Republican scandals, growing public disapproval over the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a number of analysts are predicting a shift in power on Capitol Hill come November.

So will the Democrats succeed in the upcoming elections? A new book shows how the Republican party may still have the edge. It’s called "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century." It reveals how the Republican party owns a clear advantage in the fundamentals of campaigning and has built up a series of structural advantages that make it increasingly difficult to beat.

  • Tom Hamburger, investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, specializing in the White House and executive branch. He is co-author of the book, "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century."
  • Peter Wallsten, covers the White House and national politics for the Los Angeles Times. He is co-author of, "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined here in Washington, D.C. by the book’s authors, Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten. Tom Hamburger is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, specializing in the White House and executive branch. Peter Wallsten covers the White House and national politics for the Los Angeles Times, as well. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

TOM HAMBURGER: Thanks. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: One Party Country. Tom Hamburger, you spent a lot of time going to Wednesday meetings. Can you describe what they are?

TOM HAMBURGER: Sure, Amy, thanks. The Wednesday meetings refer to the gatherings of conservative activists at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, the activist organization established by Grover Norquist, effective organizer and gadfly on the right, who brings together the conservative coalition every week for a private — generally closed to the press — meeting to hash out, to discuss both issues of the day and to sort of get the message from the White House, from the Republican National Committee, from the constituent groups of the conservative coalition. And it’s a place where the disparate members of this group can come together, and do come together, every week to plot strategy and to air their differences, but to do so in private.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you allowed in?

TOM HAMBURGER: Well, this was an important part of our reporting. And to get in the door, we did agree to some ground rules, which included our going in agreeing to accept some things off the record, that is, not publishing everything that took place, because there’s a lot of strategic material that’s discussed, and so forth. But we very much wanted to get inside this meeting, to understand how it is that this coalition on the right has become — we argue in this book and we believe — unusually successful, both in organizing the disparate wings of the Republican Party and of the conservative movement and getting them to focus on both short-term and long-term goals. We wanted to see how it worked, and it was important for us to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what’s the secret? How does it work?

TOM HAMBURGER: Part of it is that — part of the success is that groups with different short-term goals — say the business wing of the party, corporate interests, versus the social conservatives — are able to come together with the idea of saying, how can we — what is it that we can compromise on? What is it that we can come together on for a short-term — sort of paper over short-term differences for long-term gain?

An example, we were there when the Medicare proposal, Medicare drug proposal, was backed by the White House, and the White House came to make the argument that this drug proposal, even though it was antithetical to some traditional conservatives, would be good for the movement in the short term, because it could bring seniors into the Republican fold and encourage votes in the midterm elections for Republicans. And so, we watched as conservatives were asked to basically tamp down your disagreements over this, what was considered a non-conservative expansion of a federal entitlement program, in order for Republicans to make gains short-term in the midterm elections.

AMY GOODMAN: And Grover Norquist’s significance within the Republican Party, the man who said — what was the famous quote about the bath tub?

TOM HAMBURGER: Oh, 'My goal is to — I don't just want to shrink the size of government, I want to bring it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.’ I think that’s the quote.

Grover Norquist is a guy who grew up in conservative politics. He was a leader in College Republicans, notably came to know, while he was in college, Karl Rove, also a leader in that movement, and guy called Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, a whole cadre of the sort of leaders of the movement who came of age roughly at the same time.

Grover then worked for the Reagan White House and then came to lead this anti-tax wing of the Republican Party, which became — is a very important part of the conservative movement today and, we argue in the book, also introduced discipline in the party, in a sense. When the father of the current president was in the White House and broke his pledge — remember this, "Read my lips: no new taxes" — Norquist and his organization and this group of anti-tax conservatives really went after that first President Bush. And we argue in the book that that was an enormous lesson to his son, which is, understand the power of these movement conservatives and don’t cross them.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Wallsten, where does redistricting fit into all of this?

PETER WALLSTEN: That’s actually an important point that I think — that we both think has been lost in a lot of the current debate over who is going to win the House, who’s going to win control of the House this year. You know, we don’t know who’s going to win control of the House, but we can tell you this: Republicans have a huge advantage when it comes to the way that districts are drawn. And this is an interesting point.

It happened actually in the 1980s, the Democratic Congress passed a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act. And what that did was encourage the creation of more districts that would be drawn to elect more minorities to Congress, which seemed like a good goal at the time to the Democrats who were in charge and certainly to the civil rights groups that were advocating for it. But what Lee Atwater, the kind of the late and legendary Republican operative, strategist, realized then was that since redistricting was done every decade typically, that after the 1990 census when state legislatures in states around all over the country would be doing their map redrawing, Lee Atwater realized that the Republicans could actually create alliances with these civil rights groups and give them more minority seats than the Democrats could give.

And the reason for that is because the Republicans realized that when you take minorities and pack them into districts that would elect, say, a minority member with 60% or 70% or 80% of the vote, that bleaches out the surrounding districts. It creates more white conservative districts. This happened in Florida and across the South. And that helped create this map that is now, we argue, tilted in favor of Republicans, especially when it comes to districts that are maybe a little more closely competitive but lean Republican. The fight for control of the House is not fought out on a level playing field. It is on a playing field that benefits Republicans.

So this year, for a lot of reasons that your viewers and listeners know about, the Republicans are having a hard time. And many think that they might lose control of the House. This is what some analysts call a tsunami effect of problems that could lead Democrats to win. But even Democratic strategists will tell you that they don’t know that they’re going to win in this environment, which is a pretty remarkable acknowledgement given everything that’s gone on. And even if they do win, it would be only by a narrow margin, and that’s because they’re constrained by these maps, and this redistricting plan is important to this day for that reason.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Republican strategy to reach more deeply into the African American, Latino communities, to immigrant communities?

PETER WALLSTEN: It’s also a very important tenet of One Party Country, as we lay out in the book, that really under the leadership of the Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, they tried to redefine the way the Republican Party goes after minority voters. Latinos, George W. Bush won 40% of the Hispanic vote nationally, which is a pretty remarkable number for Republicans. Jeb has won with huge numbers, not just the Cuban Republicans, but non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida who tend to vote Democratic, as well. And they did this with a strategy that some strategists call the "I love you" strategy, where they manage to appeal to a sense of emotion, rather than issues, in the case of Latinos.

In the case of African Americans, we can talk more about programs and issues that they use, but one that we lay out in the book is called the White House faith-based initiative, where the White House actually helped — created a program to funnel taxpayer dollars to African American churches across the country, kind of bringing influential ministers into the fold, so they would turn around and campaign for Republicans.

You mentioned Hurricane Katrina. There’s the immigration debate. There’s lots of reasons right now why this outreach to minorities is strained. What we argue, though, is that the point was never to win a majority of these groups. The Karl Rove vision is to peel away slices of the electorate. So, Republicans don’t need to win the majority of African Americans to win elections. They don’t even need to win 20% of them. They could win 15% of African Americans, and that would give them the chance to really keep Democrats in the minority.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain how the whole Sensenbrenner bill, immigration bill that criminalized immigrants, criminalized those that would help them, criminalized priests, nuns, people who helped those who are undocumented in this country, how did that fit into an Republican strategy?

PETER WALLSTEN: Well, I would say that that is probably not part of the Karl Rove strategy, per se, however, in the long-term strategy. In the short term, you have the White House pushing for what some might call a more open immigration policy, and you have conservative Republicans pushing for this more restrictive policy, so all bases are covered for the Republican Party right now, depending on which district you’re running in.

But as far as the long-term strategy that we write about, this is really one of the strains and one of the pressure points of this strategy, that, you know, George W. Bush, the one issue that you can really point to that he seems to understand and feel strongly about is immigration. We went back to Midland, Texas and talked to Hispanics that he knew as a young businessman. I mean, George W. Bush has long been close personal friends with immigrants, Mexican Americans and even Mexicans living in the United States who are in the citizens. It’s something that he actually has strong feelings about, and he believes that the immigration policy should not be restrictive. He also is very close with corporate America, as Tom can talk about later, and they obviously have strong feelings about inexpensive labor.

So, but in the big picture, the White House is pushing for this more open policy, because, in part, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman believe that Hispanic voters are going to be key to any Republican majority, if it’s going to be long-term. And George Bush realized this in '94, when he actually challenged Pete Wilson personally on Proposition 187 in California, where George Bush, at a time that the Republican Party overall was thinking that immigration was going to be a huge issue for them — Pete Wilson won reelection, he was viewed as a possible challenger to Bill Clinton in ’96 — George Bush told them Prop 187 was wrong. And that's in part because they realized the power of the Hispanic vote.

And one more point to that is that a lot of Republican strategists right now believe that if the party nominates a candidate in 2008 who believes in a more restrictive border policy, that this majority plan could actually die.

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re not going to vote on immigration before the election.

PETER WALLSTEN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: They see they’re in big trouble on this issue.

PETER WALLSTEN: That’s right. And again, that keeps all bases covered for now.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom.

TOM HAMBURGER: Your question, Amy, gets to this: one of the big threats to the Rove-Bush plan for building this majority is expanding entree into the Latino community, and this split on immigration within the party, Sensenbrenner’s bill versus the White House position, is a threat to that plan.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of big business, the Republicans almost completing their strategy to incorporate it as — what do you call it? — an arm of the party.

TOM HAMBURGER: Yeah. Amy, one of the dreams of conservative strategists for decades actually has been to mobilize business, making business and the corporate community an arm of the Republican Party, in the same way that labor has been to the Democrats. That’s the analogy that’s been used. And we argue in the book that they have become, in the last six years particularly, remarkably successful in mobilizing business and in mobilizing business in new ways that weren’t imagined previously.

You know, for decades, business executives have written checks to the Republican parties, inordinately to Republicans, 60% to 70% GOP, as opposed to 40%, 30% to the Democrats. But what’s happened over the last six years, as Republicans have grabbed on and there’s been a general understanding of the importance of reaching out in a campaign to individuals through niche person-to-person marketing, is that business has been engaged in this effort in a way we’ve never seen before. So it’s no longer just writing checks, but it’s actually using the email systems of large corporations, mobilizing the workforce on the factory floor and, in some cases, actually having employers urging their employees to vote or to recommend voting for a specific candidate. This is new, and we argue in the book that it’s had a powerful effect, and we expect to see more of it in 2006, even a year in which some business executives, always very practical, are at least publicly trying to hedge their bets.

AMY GOODMAN: How significant was Karl Rove being under the cloud of indictment?

TOM HAMBURGER: Well, that’s — Karl Rove played an enormous role in everything we’ve been talking about so far, both the sort of master strategist, a guy who has what some Republicans call bifocal vision, meaning he focuses on both short-term games the next election and also the long-term prospects, the long-term need to build what he likes to call the dominant majority of Republicans. But Karl, we think, was significantly sidelined and hampered by the Fitzgerald investigation and the threat of being indicted in the Valerie Plame investigation. It took a toll on him and on the plan. We were going to the Norquist Wednesday meetings and observing all of this. In fact, when the White House made a serious misstep nominating Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court — they had to, as you know, take back that nomination — that occurred really at the time when Karl Rove was under the most pressure from the Fitzgerald investigation. He was being brought back to the Grand Jury, and so on.

So I think he was enormously distracted and is now, as a result of knowing that he’s been cleared, enormously relieved and, in a sense, back in the saddle again. We think he’s playing an enormous role, contrary to some of the news stories that appeared of late suggesting that his influence isn’t as great. He’ll be, we believe, once again the field marshal for these midterm elections, even if not quite as visible as he’s been in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Wallsten, Voter Vault.

PETER WALLSTEN: Another important tenet of the one party strategy, Amy. Voter Vault is a massive database of millions of names, not just names of voters, but their tastes, their opinions on issues, what brand car they drive, what kind of alcoholic beverage they might prefer, whether they have — what kind of features they have on their home telephone. And this is a database that’s kept here in Washington at the Republican National Committee headquarters, but that is accessible on a web-based program to Republican operatives around the country. If you’re a Republican strategist running a state senate campaign in Florida or a congressional campaign in Arizona, you can have access to this database and within minutes have a list of names of people in a particular neighborhood, where you want to send a volunteer to go knock on doors, based on whether they’re — based on what level of conservative they are, if they’re very conservative, moderately conservative, not conservative at all.

It’s a way that the Republicans can go into, you know — they can focus their attention not only on well-known conservative areas in an exurb or a suburb, but they can go into the middle of Cleveland or the middle of Philadelphia, and in a neighborhood of liberal Democrats, they could find a person to vote Republican. And it’s part of a key to winning close elections. There’s a lot of closely competitive House races this year. We believe that Voter Vault gives the Republicans an advantage in those close House races, because they have more of an ability than the Democrats. The Democrats do not — they have a database, but it’s not nearly as sophisticated as this.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do they get the information?

PETER WALLSTEN: They buy it from retailers. It’s marketing data that’s available. It’s not unique to the Republican Party, but —

TOM HAMBURGER: Drug chains, supermarkets keep an enormous amount of information, Amy, about your buying habits and mine. And what marketers have learned is that this can be an enormous advantage if you want to design a specific narrowly tailored campaign.

Can we give you an example? We came across in a suburb in Ohio an African American woman called Felicia Hill. She’s a nurse married to a UAW auto worker. Traditionally, this would not be a household in which Republicans would target or spend a lot of time, African American UAW union household. But what Voter Vault told Republican field operatives was that the Hills not only were traditionally registered as Democrats, but that they also sent their children to private schools. They knew also that Mrs. Hill subscribed to golfing magazines, because she’s an avid golfer. They knew that they were members of a conservative church that was opposed to gay marriage initiatives and to abortion.

And this allowed the party to make a series of entreaties to the family, and particularly to Felicia Hill, like which they had never seen before, to woo her to Republican events and to convince her that the Republican Party, based on her interest in supporting private schools and school vouchers, for example, might be a home for her. So for the Republican Party, getting Ms. Hill to attend Republican events and to be open to Republican argument was an enormous victory. It was an example of how you can use a database or data on individuals to reach out to new voters who might not traditionally be in your corner.

AMY GOODMAN: Did she change her vote?

TOM HAMBURGER: She did not, actually. What she told us was that she went to some Bush events. She met Republicans and for the first time felt at home. But when she got into the voting booth, she could not bring herself to cast her ballot for George Bush and voted for John Kerry. But when we talked to Republicans — and this is an example of this sort of long-term thinking that we think Republicans have developed that Dems have not yet to the same degree — this was a victory, because she didn’t vote for George W. Bush or for Republicans in 2004, but in 2006 or 2008, who knows? We now have an avenue of communication. And this was considered a victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter?

PETER WALLSTEN: I was going to say that the Voter Vault also has helped them find — going back to the point of the ethnic politics, in 2004, the Bush campaign managed to track down millions of Hispanic voters that they viewed as potentially sympathetic and who might vote Republican, especially in the Southwest, which was such an important — which continues to be such an important battleground. And what they did with these people that they found is they sent a DVD, a five-minute-long DVD narrated by President Bush, which was remarkable if you viewed it, especially in the current climate of the immigration debate, because in this DVD, it opens with President Bush on his vacation property in Texas fishing. And he’s talking about how all this land used to be Mexico, and the people who lived here weren’t foreigners, they weren’t necessarily Hispanics, they were Mexicans. So some congressmen like Tom Tancredo first of all might find it interesting that the President of the United States is somewhat ceding Texas to Mexico.

But on top of that, the DVD goes on to have the President bragging about all of the Hispanics he’s appointed to high office, how he hopes more Hispanics will run for office and how they’ll be Republicans. And kind of amazingly, the DVD ends with an image of then-Governor Bush marching in a Mexican Independence Day parade in Texas, waving a Mexican flag, which is interesting because many of the conservative Republicans now are critical of some of the protesters who have shown up at these immigration protests waving Mexican flags.

Also, there was an interesting event in Cleveland on the weekend before the election in 2004, where the Republicans managed to find creative ways to build a database of potentially sympathetic Jewish voters. And these happened to be Russian-speaking immigrants, Jewish immigrants, who lived in big, tall apartment buildings out in a suburb of Cleveland. And they put together lists. They contacted the local rabbis, and they put out an order for everybody to vote. And then, on the Sunday before Election Day, the Bush campaign actually held a rally that they put on entirely in Russian, that by the end of the rally had all the elderly Russian immigrants standing up, waving their arms, chanting "Bush! Bush! Bush!" in their thick Russian accents. And they all went out and voted in mass for Bush. And, you know, this sounds like a very small group of people, and it is, but in a close election, as everybody has learned, every vote matters.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Wallsten, I want to end by asking you about that exchange that you had with President Bush back in June. You were wearing sunglasses during a news conference. The President on the White House lawn. Let’s watch and listen.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Peter, are you going to ask that question with those shades on?

PETER WALLSTEN: I can take them off for you.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I’m interested in the shade look, seriously.

PETER WALLSTEN: Alright, I’ll keep it then.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For the viewers, there’s no sun.

PETER WALLSTEN: I guess it depends on your perspective.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Touche.

AMY GOODMAN: This became a very big story, you and your shades. Why?

PETER WALLSTEN: Well, the President, of course, had no idea at the time that I have a retinal condition, a form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s, so I have — most of my central vision is gone. But in that context, what was important was that it was outside in the rose garden, it was an overcast day. But even on an overcast day, the glare can be hard to take, especially sitting outside for an extended period of time. That press conference was over an hour long. So it’s pretty painful to sit outside with that much glare without sunglasses. And I frankly forget I had them on. It’s just natural for me to have them on outside, and I forgot about them, until he mentioned it when he called on me and asked me, of course, as you just saw, if I was going to keep them on. I offered to take them off, and it became funny.

But he had made fun of several reporters that day, and he did not know about my condition. So it didn’t strike me as that big of a deal at the time. I got back to the office a little while later and noticed that the blogs were beginning to go crazy and then cable. There was, I guess, very little news out of the press conference itself, so cable TV kept playing it over and over again. And the Daily Show made fun of it. Anyway, he — and when it started becoming a big deal, he actually called me on my cell phone and apologized. And as I told him, I didn’t think personally an apology was necessary. It just didn’t — I’m used to this. It’s natural for me. I wasn’t offended, and it just didn’t seem like it should have been a big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it at that. One Party Country is Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten’s book, The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century. Thanks very much for joining us.

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