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.
Karl Rove
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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week