Karl Rove: Requiem for a Heavyweight
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 association with Jack Abramoff, and now the firing of the U.S. Attorneys, and he finally ran into an election he couldn’t win. Even so, the Republicans’ losses in the House races of 2006 were less than they might have been. Rove was the best in the business, maybe the best ever. But 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 not a divider” and after his election turned him into “a divider not a uniter.” 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 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 is left is endless accusations and fighting. Rove carried polarization to an extreme, especially in the 2002 mid-term elections, when Republicans attacked the patriotism of Democrats. He was enough of a pragmatist to know when not to polarize, such as in the 1998 governor’s race, when the Bush campaign mounted an all-out effort to carry heavily Hispanic El Paso County (which they did), and again in the 2000 presidential race, when Rove positioned Bush as a compassionate conservative. But polarization was the modus operandi of choice. When I last saw Rove, in an interview in December 2003, he blamed everything on the Democrats, for not working with the president. Nonsense. The president has the ability to set the tone.
The reasons Rove is the best in the political business are obvious: his intelligence, his efficiency (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 mastery of strategy and tactics. His particular slice of the consulting profession, direct mail, gave him an understanding of advertising and marketing principles that might elude a consultant who specialized in polling or media. As Nicholas Lemann pointed out in a memorable New Yorker profile of Rove in 2000, direct mail required a different approach to politics than media work. The media side of the business is macro, mail is micro. It is aimed at small constituencies with a common interest and a voting history. It’s efficient. Mass media advertising is inefficient; it reaches everybody, nonvoters as well as voters. Rove viewed the electorate through a finer lens than other consultants. Still, there are a lot of people in the direct mail business, but there is only one Karl Rove. The only way I know how to explain 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 have carried West Virginia, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country. Rove told me in the spring that Bush would carry the state because of two issues: the environment and gun control, both of which appealed to coal miners who normally voted Democratic. They would vote for Bush, Rove told me, because of their fear that Gore would crack down on the use of coal to produce electricity, putting them out of work. 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 their mid-term elections, but Bush campaigned around the country for Republican candidates, exploiting national security issues to great advantage. Rove accomplished both of his goals: Republicans won control of the Senate and gained 8 seats in the House. It was an historic feat, the first time since 1934 that a president (FDR) had gained seats in his first mid-term election.
In 2004 Bush and Rove won again, and Bush took to calling Rove, “the architect.” This may have been Rove’s finest race. The incumbent is usually the issue, and the first debate followed that pattern. Bush got thumped. In the second debate, Bush seized the initiative by assuming the role of the challenger and attacking Kerry. That role reversal, engineered by Rove, gave Bush the momentum he never lost. On election day, Rove’s plan to microtarget voters enabled the Republicans to win Ohio, the crucial state. Republican operatives were able to identify individual voters who were likely to vote Republican 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 the 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 ran a “uniter not a divider” campaign for Bush in 2000 and a “divider not a uniter” campaign for Bush in the 2002 and 2004 elections. He could advocate trillion-dollar tax cuts and the gigantic Medicare prescription drug entitlement program. I do think Rove 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 election–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. One of the blanks that history will fill in was whether Rove thought the war was good politics. Once the war spiraled out of control, even Rove was powerless to regain the momentum that was lost forever.
* * * *
Rove’s role in the Bush White House will undoubtedly be one of the most analyzed aspects of the administration. Indeed, the first post mortem has already been published, a piece called “The Rove Presidency” in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly. I spent much of the weekend reading the article and preparing to write about it. Green’s thesis is that Rove’s genius for winning elections did not translate into the policy arena: “The story of why an ambitious Republican president working with a Republican Congress failed to achieve most of what he set out to do finds Rove at center stage. A big paradox of Bush’s presidency is that Rove, who had maybe the best purely political mind in a generation and almost limitless opportunities to apply it from the very outset, managed to steer the administration toward disaster.”
It is an odd article in some ways, because Green mentions the Iraq war only in passing and doesn’t mention the influence of the religious right on administration policy at all. Instead, he focuses on Rove’s role as Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy: domestic issues in general and the unsuccessful attempt to privatize a portion of Social Security in particular. Green sees the failed push for Social Security reform as the Gettysburg of Bush’s presidency, the battle after which all was lost. Compared to the war in Iraq, however, Social Security was a footnote.
The most fundamental question Green raises is whether a political consultant–even the most able practitioner of his profession–should be in charge of policy. The influence of consultants on politics is pervasive. It has often been said that they are the new bosses. Unlike the old bosses, however, most consultants have little to do with governing. An often-expressed concern of political analysts, in the media and in the academy, is that the use of negative campaigning, thirty-second spots, and wedge issues, has created a disconnect between campaigning and governing. Wedge issues motivate voters but have nothing to do with the kinds of problems elected officials grapple with on a daily basis. The hot-button campaign builds an electoral constituency but not a governing constituency. When the campaign is over, consultants look to the next election, leaving the victors to ask, as Robert Redford’s character, Bill McKay, did in the classic film The Candidate, “What do I do now?”
If Karl Rove had been Bill McKay’s consultant, he would have had an answer. Rove has always been interested in policy. To prepare Bush to run for governor, he set up meetings with Republican legislators who would talk about their policy areas. When Bush became governor, though, Rove had no formal role in policymaking. He continued to run his consulting business, tended to Bush’s political affairs (especially gubernatorial appointments), dropped in for the weekly staff meeting, and prepared for the presidential race. I thought it was a good idea to keep Rove on the outside. It left him free to operate without having Bush bear the responsibility for Rove’s darker actions. But when Bush became president, Rove took on a policy role. It is hardly unprecedented for the president’s chief political adviser to be involved in policy; every policy, after all, has a political component. Still, I thought it was risky business. Rove’s drive to win, his willingness to wield the hatchet, his tendency to be a “control freak” were bound to affect his advice about issues. The temptation to put politics ahead of governing was too great. It wasn’t long before the risk manifested itself. Just four months into the Bush’s first term, in May 2001, Republican senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party identification from Republican to Independent and caucused with the Democrats. This changed the balance of power in the Senate from 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, with Vice-President Cheney casting tie-breaking votes, to 50 Ds, 49 Rs. Rove got the blame. Published reports indicated that he had excluded Jeffords from a White House ceremony honoring the Educator of the Year, who was from Jefford’s home state, as punishment for Jeffords’ record of voting frequently with Democrats. (Jeffords’ explanation was that he had been thinking about leaving the Republican party for some time, as it moved further and further to the right.) For the next eighteen months, Democrats had control of the Senate.
This incident was very much on my mind as the Texas Monthly staff began work on the September 2001 issue, which had the theme of, “Where Are They Now?” I wrote my column for that last pre-9/11 issue about Governor George W. Bush. What had happened to him? Some strange pronouncements were coming out of the White House. It had revoked a tougher standard for arsenic in drinking water imposed by a departing Bill Clinton. It had ended a fifty-year policy of letting the American Bar Association vet judicial appointments. It had questioned the value of conservation in energy policy. It had expressed doubt that global warming was a problem. What I didn’t see at the time was that these actions were part of a pattern: the marriage of policy and politics. The Bush Administration extended the reach of politics into areas that had previously been neutral ground: science, religion, national security, judicial selection, and–time will tell–perhaps the prosecutorial discretion of U.S. attorneys. I had always regarded Bush as a mainstream politician, but these actions and pronouncements were far removed from the mainstream. Looking for an explanation of what had happened, I wrote about the differences between the Bush governor’s office and the Bush White House:
In Austin, the governor’s political director, Karl Rove, was on the outside. He headed his own consulting firm. His remoteness from daily action meant that he seldom got involved in policy issues. If he snubbed legislators or twisted arms, he was acting on his own. In Washington, Rove is a senior advisor on the White House staff. He is deeply involved in policy issues. (He was concerned about federal funding for stem cell research because of its potential impact on the Catholic vote.) If, as published reports have suggested, he played mean with Jeffords, he did so as the agent of the president; therefore the affront was much more serious. Another staffing difference is that Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s chief of staff and enforcer in the governor’s office, is no longer on the inside; he is the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Allbaugh had the size and the presence that the enforcer’s job demanded, and he wasn’t shy about challenging Rove or anybody else. The absence of Allbaugh or some other enforcer type, such as Bush’s former Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer, leaves the staff out of balance. I can’t help but wonder: If Allbaugh had been on the inside keeping an eye on Rove, wouldn’t Jeffords still be a Republican?
* * * *
George W. 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 divided between his commitment to the president and his commitment to the 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; Franklin Roosevelt’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.
Joshua Green explained in his Atlantic article how realignment elections work. The necessary conditions are weak party loyalty, so that voters can shift to the other party, and what one scholar calls “societal trauma.” Rove was well known for espousing the view that the 1896 presidential election, 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 mid-term 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 that Karl 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 see Bush and urge him 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 low- to mid-fifties. He was able to win passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and a $1.3 trillion tax cut, but by the end of the summer, he had run out of momentum. That’s the way things stood on September 11, when the attack on the World Trade Center changed the country and the Bush presidency. Bush’s approval rating soared thirty points, spiking in the mid-80s. He responded with military action in Afghanistan. Had American forces killed or captured Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, and had Bush decided that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary–or had the war been more successful–who knows what course American politics might have taken.
* * * *
Instead, Bush won a difficult election in 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 had taken the position 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 Bill Clinton and asked for their vote. One by one, the Democrats explained why they couldn’t vote for it. The point was, you can’t work with the Democrats. I asked Rove, “What did you offer to do for them?” His answer was, “We offered them the chance to do the right thing.” That was a revealing statement. Rove couldn’t shed his combative persona as a consultant to engage in negotiations with the opposition.
Rove didn’t even get along with Republican leaders of Congress. Tom DeLay told Joshua Green that Rove had been extremely aggressive in trying to impose his ideas on Congress. Green quotes a Republican aide as saying that when Rove occasionally attended leadership meetings, “[H]e 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.” Dick Cheney, the aide went on to say, was more deferential than Rove. Dick Armey told Green that Bill Clinton would always sign and date Armey’s name tag whenever he went to the White House, so that Armey could give it to a schoolkid who visited his office. On his first visit to the Bush White House, he explained the tradition to Bush and asked him to sign the card. Bush refused! Rove chimed in, “It would probably wind up on eBay.” The Bush White House, Armey said, “was tone-deaf to the normal courtesies of the office.
I saw a flash of Rove’s attitude even before Bush took office. It was January 2001, and I was interviewing Rove in his office in the building that had served as the presidential campaign headquarters. Chief-of-staff-to-be Andy Card stuck his head in the office and said, “The AP just called. They’re running with a story that we’re naming Marge Roukema (a Republican House member from New Jersey) treasurer of the United States.” Rove exploded. “She wasn’t for us. Tell them to spike the story.” “I can’t,” Card said. “It’s true.” The reason, he said, is that Speaker Denny Hastert wanted her to get the appointment. (As I recall, he was hoping to move her out of the way so he could avoid a fight over a committee chairmanship.) Rove exploded again. “Hastert wouldn’t be speaker if we hadn’t given him a million dollars [for congressional campaigns],” he said. Roukema didn’t get the job, and she didn’t get the committee chair. The way Rove talked about Hastert, you would have thought he was a low-level federal bureaucrat.
It’s no wonder that Bush’s attempt to privatize part of Social Security in 2005 failed to gain traction. Bush had nothing to lose by proposing it. He would never face the voters again. But the Republican members of Congress had to face them every two years. The proposal had no constituency. There was no immediate crisis. And Karl Rove, whose job was to get it passed, had poor relationships with the congressional leadership. It never had a chance.
* * * *
I thought that the Bush presidency would be like the Bush governorship. I believed then, and I believe now, that Bush was what he said he was: a compassionate conservative, a uniter not a divider, someone who said he wanted to change the tone of Washington and meant it, someone who said he wanted to restore honor and integrity to the White House and meant it. He had legislative triumphs (No Child Left Behind, the tax cuts, and, later, the Medicare prescription drug program), and he established himself as a strong leader after 9/11. He had all the political capital a president could hope for.
What went wrong? Karl Rove is not the only answer–the war in Iraq overshadows everything else–but he is part of the answer. Rove should have been on the outside as, say, 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. Rove’s agenda was designed to meet his political needs, not the country’s needs. The ultimate blame, of course, lies with Bush, because he failed to see the possible consequences of putting policy in the hands of a political consultant.