Recommended reading: Royal Masset’s take on Karl Rove in the R&D section of the Quorum Report. Masset is a former political director of the Republican party. He begins by saying that he doesn’t like Rove and calls him a “hyper college Republican who never grew up.” That’s an interesting observation, because Karl was often suspected of dirty tricks, long after he left the college Republicans, which were, in his day, notorious for dirty tricks. But he also allows that Rove was “probably the greatest campaign tactician in history.”

Here are Masset’s major points:

Texas would have become a Republican state with or without Karl Rove.

Agree in part, disagree in part. Texas became Republican for two reasons. The first was national politics trends. Politically, Texas was part of the South, and between 1960 and 1980 the South changed from Democratic to Republican. This shift was initiated by the Democrats’ determination to end segregation, and the shift accelerated as both parties moved away away from the political center. The Democrats lost rural Texas in a six-year span that included the election of Bill Clements as governor in 1978, the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, and the election of Phil Gram as U.S. senator in 1984. The 1984 Democratic Senate run-off, when conservative Kent Hance lost to liberal Lloyd Doggett, was the death knell for rural conservative Democrats. Gramm slaughtered Doggett. The second reason Texas became Republican was demographic change brought on by the relocation of companies from the Rust Belt to Dallas and Houston, which stimulated enormous growth in the suburbs. The Republican party changed from silk stocking to conservative populist. Still, if you’re going to argue that Rove shouldn’t get credit for making a Republican state, you have to deal with who would have run against Ann Richards in 1994. The only two Republicans in office at the time were Rick Perry, who was agriculture commissioner, and Barry Williamson, who was a railroad commissioner. No chance that either of them could have defeated Richards. Rove’s ties to the Bushes enabled him to persuade George W. that the race could be won. Bush was the catalyst that changed Texas from a marginal Republican state to a solidly Republican state. When he resigned as governor, Republicans held every statewide elected office, including every member of the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. Texas would have become a Republican state anyway, but Rove surely accelerated the timetable.

[Rove] was relentless. He initially put together the best fundraising list in Texas. He then cobbled together the best voting list in Texas. These made Karl the only statewide consultant with the resources to run a viable statewide campaign.

This point is really interesting. Money and votes are the two things matter most in politics. And that’s where Rove put his money and his energy. Had Rove been in a different aspect of the consulting business–media or polling–he might not have been inclined to do build these lists–“at considerable financial risk,” Masset says. Masset challenges the widely held view of Rove as genius. As a direct mail consultant, he says, Rove was “good but not great,” adding, “I always felt we had consultants smarter than Karl, like Bryan Eppstein and John Colyandro.”

Karen Hughes had more to do with Bush’s victories than Karl.

This is an old debate about which is more important, tactics or message. Masset comes down on the side of message. “I love numbers and using voter projections to determine campaign tactics. But there is a larger truth in politics that took me years to grasp. Voters have to trust and like candidates to support them. Image and media trump numbers.” Friends who served in the governor’s office for Bush told me that Karen had the knack of phrasing comments in a way that went right to Bush’s brain, even when other people were saying much the same thing. I thought it was a bad sign when Karen left, a sign that she realized that politics had become more important than message. I am certain that if Karen had been in the Bush White House, she would have recognized the importance of responding immediately to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The one thing that Rove could never do was make the American people like George W. Bush.

The greatest myth surrounding [Bush’s] upset victory against Ann Richards in 1994 was that it was due to brilliant strategy. It wasn’t….But the person who elected George Bush governor … was Newt Gingrich.

That was the year that Gingrich masterminded a Republican takeover of Congress that included the defeat of two incumbent Democrats in Texas, Jack Brooks and Bill Sarpalius. Masset points out that 57% of the Texans who voted in congressional races cast their votes for Republicans, compared to 49% in 1992. Bush got 53% of the vote; a number of Republicans did better. Bush “could not have been elected governor … without the 8% increase in the percentage of votes cast for Republican congressional candidates.” I’m not a numbers cruncher, but I’m not sure I agree with Masset. It seems to me that you would have to know whether the increase in Republican congressional votes came from party switchers and nonvoters whom Gingrich motivated to vote Republican with Contract with America, or just a natural increase in voting that resulted from population growth in the Republican suburbs. (Undoubtedly it was a combination of both.) I believe more people are motivate to vote by the gubernatorial candidate than by the congressional candidate. The reason Bush trailed those other successful GOP candidates is not because he was carried into office on congressional coattails but because he had the toughest opponent of any Republican who won.

Hiring Karl Rove as a White House “Senior Adviser” was a serious mistake.

I agree 100%, as I wrote in my post, “Karl Rove: Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Masset says, “Karen Hughes, as the communications czar, had a legitimate reason for working in the White House. Karl had none. Karl had no problem consulting with Governor Bush without working in the Governor’s office. I think Karl’s big ego was the reason he had to work at the White House as the Senior Advisor.” I will say this: Maybe Bush wanted Rove on the inside. Remember that Bush insisted that Rove have only one client–Bush. He may have felt the same way about Rove working for him as president.
Masset makes the point that “[t]he best officeholders usually don’t hire the political people who elect them….[C]ampaign people…rarely do well as executives. Heads of state need to be surrounded by professional administrators….Reagan was great in part because he was surrounded by the best professionals.”

I think Royal should have the last word:

I always believed that Karl would be a perpetually disruptive force in the White House. His talk about creating a permanent Republican majority was nutty. I believe in partisanship and want my president to implement conservative polcies. But I don’t want the White House any more than the military to be [a] nest of political wannabes.