Requiem for a Heavyweight

It was one thing for Karl Rove to get George W. Bush elected. It was another for a combative political consultant to have a hand in policy-making. Bad for the president, bad for the country.

October 2007By Comments

Karl Rove

Many are rejoicing at Karl Rove’s exit from the White House. I’m not, but neither am I sorry to see him go. The time had come, and the country and the president are better off for his leaving. He had been caught up in too many dark episodes—the Valerie Plame incident, the Jack Abramoff scandal, the firing of the U.S. attorneys—and he proved to be less adept at governing than at winning elections. He left with his dreams unfulfilled, but they were the wrong dreams. He wanted to build a permanent Republican majority. That was his agenda, but I don’t think it served George W. Bush well. It required employing the bait-and-switch tactics that presented Bush to the country as a uniter and, after his election, turned him into a divider.

The way Rove set out to create that permanent majority was toxic to democratic politics. He sought to shrink the political center until, to borrow a phrase, you could drown it in a bathtub. He once told me, “There are no undecided voters, there are only uncommitted voters,” and he used polarization to get the uncommitted to commit. Some degree of polarization is necessary to win elections; after all, the idea is to force voters to make a choice. But Rove carried polarization to an extreme, especially in the 2002 midterm elections, when Republicans attacked the patriotism of Democrats. When polarization becomes a guiding principle, it produces politicians who have neither the inclination nor the skill to negotiate and compromise. And without negotiation and compromise, all that’s left is endless accusations and fighting.

Still, Rove was the best in the business, maybe the best ever. The reasons are obvious: his intelligence, his efficiency (he’s the kind of person who seems to get 26 hours of work out of a 24-hour day), his knowledge of American political history. His particular slice of the consulting profession, direct mail, gave him an understanding of advertising and marketing principles that might elude someone who specialized in polling or media. (As Nicholas Lemann pointed out in a memorable New Yorker profile of Rove in 2003, the media side of the business is macro, while mail is micro. Mass advertising is inefficient; it reaches everybody, nonvoters as well as voters. Direct mail is aimed at small constituencies with a common interest and a voting history.) What made Rove different is that he could see through the fog to be able to conceive the right strategy and execute it—the way a great chess player can look at the pieces on the board and see order, when others can see only a jumble.

This last attribute was essential to winning the presidency in 2000. No other political consultant would have dreamed that a Republican could carry West Virginia, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country. Rove told me that spring that Bush would win the state because of two issues: environmental regulation of coal emissions and gun control, both of which concerned miners who normally voted Democratic. Bush carried not only West Virginia but also Tennessee, Al Gore’s home state, and Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s home state. Then, in 2002, Rove made the bold decision to try to regain control of the Senate and increase the narrow Republican margin in the House. This was quite a gamble, because presidents usually suffer congressional losses in midterm elections (not since Franklin Roosevelt, in 1934, had a president gained seats in his first midterm election). But Bush campaigned around the country for Republican candidates, exploiting national security issues to great advantage. Republicans won control of the Senate and gained eight seats in the House.

In 2004 Bush and Rove won again, and Bush christened Rove the Architect. It may have been Rove’s finest race. His plan to microtarget voters enabled the Republicans to win the crucial state of Ohio. Republican operatives could identify individual voters who were likely to vote their way with tactics like buying the subscription lists of magazines that appealed to conservatives. Democratic consultant James Carville, writing in Time magazine, called Rove’s masterminding of Bush’s victory “the signature political achievement of my lifetime.”

I have never heard Rove talk about his own political views. He’s a conservative, of course, but I never thought of him as an ideologue. He gave no indication that he was interested in creating a conservative utopia, as, say, former House majority leader Dick Armey would have liked to do. He was a pragmatist. He fought the religious right for Bush in Texas and embraced it for Bush in Washington. He could advocate both trillion-dollar tax cuts and the gigantic Medicare prescription drug entitlement program. I do think he was in politics to change the world, but the way to change it was simply to put conservatives in power and keep them there. Issues to him were a means—of winning an election—but not an end. If you look at the issues Bush ran on over the years, many of them targeted Democratic constituencies: tort reform (trial lawyers), education accountability (the education establishment), Social Security reform (seniors), immigration reform (Hispanics). All this was part of Rove’s plan for a permanent Republican majority. It might have come to pass, too, had American troops annihilated Al Qaeda at Tora Bora and captured or killed Osama bin Laden, and had Bush decided that there was no need to invade Iraq. Once the war spiraled out of control, even Rove was powerless to regain the momentum that was lost forever.

Bush is famous for the premium he places on loyalty, and Rove is famous for his loyalty to Bush. But I wonder whether Rove’s loyalties weren’t too divided between his commitment to the president and his commitment to his dream of creating the permanent Republican majority. Rove had seen the 2000 election as an opportunity to achieve a realignment of the electorate that could produce a Republican hegemony. Realignment elections that result in lasting majorities are rare in American history. Those that are obvious are Jefferson’s defeat of John Adams and the Federalists in 1800, Lincoln’s victory in 1860, FDR’s defeat of Hoover in 1932, and Reagan’s defeat of Carter in 1980. Rove saw the chance to make the Bush presidency the catalyst for the next realignment. He was well-known for espousing the view that the 1896 presidential race, in which Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan, was underappreciated as a realignment election. He drew parallels to 2000: the end of a century, a stagnant Democratic party that rural voters were abandoning (for the Populists), wrenching changes that were leaving a significant part of the economy behind (farmers in 1896, industrial workers in 2000).

But Rove’s reading of the 1896 election does not hold up under scrutiny. The big Republican gains had already occurred, in the midterm election of 1894. The GOP actually lost House seats in 1896 and again in 1898. Nor was the Republican majority durable. By 1910 the Democrats had taken back the House. In 1912 the third-party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt won more votes than the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, who carried only two states. The Democrats elected Woodrow Wilson as president, held control of the House, and took back the Senate. The lasting impact of the 1896 election on American politics was not a McKinley realignment but the influence of Populism, whose democratizing ideas—direct election of senators; initiative, referendum, and recall; the progressive income tax—were absorbed by the Democratic party. Rove had to know these things. Maybe what he really liked about the 1896 election was the genius of the Republican strategist, Mark Hanna, who kept McKinley on his front porch in Ohio and brought delegations to pledge their support. If this sounds familiar, it was exactly the way Rove prepared George W. Bush to run for president, keeping him in Austin during the spring of 1999 while he brought delegations from around the country to urge Bush to seek the Republican nomination.

After the bitterly contested election of 2000, realignment was not feasible. The election didn’t weaken party loyalties; it hardened them. There was no societal trauma. Bush’s approval rating hovered in the fifties. He was able to win passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and a $1.6 trillion tax cut, but by the end of the summer, he had run out of steam. That’s the way things stood on September 11, when the attack on the World Trade Center changed the country and the Bush presidency.

Following the difficult election of 2004, the Architect’s reward was the position of deputy chief of staff for policy. I didn’t think this would work out. When I had interviewed Rove in December 2003, he’d argued that Democrats were to blame for the contentiousness in Washington for refusing to work with the president. He offered the example of the president’s attempt to get fast-track authority in international trade. Rove met with all the House Democrats who had supported fast-track authority for Clinton and asked for their vote. One by one, the Democrats explained why they couldn’t vote for it. His point to me was “The Democrats won’t work with us.” I asked Rove, “What did you offer to do for them?” “We offered them the chance to do the right thing,” he replied. That was a revealing statement. He couldn’t shed his combative consultant’s persona to engage in negotiations with the opposition.

Rove didn’t even get along with Republican leaders of Congress. Tom DeLay told the Atlantic’s Joshua Green that Rove had been extremely aggressive in trying to push his ideas. Green quotes a Republican aide as saying that when Rove occasionally attended leadership meetings, “He definitely considered himself at least an equal with the leaders in the room . . . Rove would come and chime in as if he were equal to the speaker.”

I thought that the Bush presidency would be like the Bush governorship. What went wrong? Rove is not the only answer—the mismanagement of the war in Iraq overshadows everything else—but he is part of it. He should have been on the outside, as, say, the head of the Republican National Committee, rather than on the inside. There he would have been free to pursue his goal of a permanent Republican majority without having an impact on policy. His agenda was designed to meet his political needs, not the country’s.

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