“What you do is crank the heck out of your base,” Howard Dean declared a few months ago. “Get them really excited and crank up the base turnout and you’ll win the middle-of-the-roaders.” Dean got this notion from a left-wing linguist — no, not that one — named George Lakoff. Lakoff, a professor at UC Berkeley, bases his analysis on a framework of liberals as “nurturing parents,” conservatives as “strict fathers,” and swing voters as “bi-conceptuals” who have internalized characteristics of both parenting models. In Lakoff’s view, bi-conceptuals relate equally to both sides, and thus swing to whichever side is more excited.
This is nuts, of course, and Dean’s miserable failure as a candidate illustrates why. In the context of the Democratic primary (never mind the general electorate), Dean excited his base so much that most voters ran in terror to the more respectable alternative faster than you can say “yeeeeaaagh!” The most bizarre part of the Lakoff Theory’s saga, though, is Dean’s comment to U.S. News and World Report that “Karl Rove discovered it, too, but I discovered it independently.”
Conservatives, particularly recently, would be shocked to learn that anyone would interpret the strategy of President Bush’s chief political adviser as “ignore the center, excite the base.” Indeed, Bush’s base these days has less and less to be pleased about, let alone excited over. The latest outrage is a major cash infusion for the National Endowment for the Arts.
It’s a classic feint to the center, a message to suburban moderates: “We’re not those prudish barbarian Republicans you remember from the '90s! We support the arts!” To the base, it feels like a betrayal in favor of more urine-and-sacrilege-based “art” from an agency that was once a prime target for termination, all the more galling in the face of runaway spending on everything from space exploration to prescription drugs to plain, old-fashioned pork.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House’s campaign strategy involves letting Vice President Cheney tout and defend the major accomplishments of the past three years — mostly foreign policy so far, but sources say Cheney will be talking about domestic issues later in the year — while the President talks about his forward-looking vision. Thus, almost all of Bush’s election-year message to the right will be about shoring up tax cuts. The rest will be aimed at the center.
Dean’s campaign is clinically dead; its failures in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the campaign-manager switch (almost never a good sign), will, the polls appear to show, be followed be more failure across the country this week. Dean excited his base at the expense of all else; it didn’t work. Is Bush in danger of making the opposite mistake?
It would, at the moment of this writing, appear so, though admittedly much of the evidence comes from bloggers, talk radio commentators and other chronic kvetches. Bush’s record on taxes and foreign policy should convince many, many right-leaning voters. Just to be sure, though, some base-shoring-up is in order, Mr. President: Talk up Social Security reform. Make an issue of the judicial deadlock. Veto a spending bill or two (or better yet, follow some of David Hogberg’s spending-control suggestions from last Friday).
Courting his base so much he scared off swing voters, Dean proved that the Lakoff Theory is wrong. But its converse is also wrong, and Bush mustn’t risk losing the base by courting the middle.