Karl Rove's Flameout
Political types tend to get suspicious when those on one side of the spectrum suddenly start complimenting their supposed worst enemies—the equivalent of Seinfeld hosting a testimonial for Newman or Eliot Ness carpooling with Al Capone.
Yet in the past few weeks, the White House and even The New York Times have done exactly that—heaping praise on their longtime nemesis, Karl Rove, and his protégé, Ed Gillespie.
“These guys are great political operatives,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said, “and they will have an impact in this election.” The Times, meanwhile, extolled Rove as a “master political strategist” who is rebuilding the GOP majority. President Obama and Vice President Biden have done both men the great political favor of calling them out by name—almost ensuring them more Republican support and donations.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, this effort comes as an increasing number of conservatives—from Rush to Palin to scores of activists and high-level veterans of the Reagan Revolution—view Rove as part of the GOP’s unfortunate recent past. Indeed, they are even beginning to conclude that the oft-repeated belief that Rove is the savior of the GOP may be one of the biggest political hoaxes in American political history. At best, the man President Bush called “Turdblossom” has had a decidedly mixed record on the national level—losing the popular vote in 2000; barely beating a liberal aristocrat from Massachusetts in 2004; and, with the aid of Gillespie, presiding over the loss of both houses of Congress in 2006, and the White House in 2008. Rove and his crew, one influential conservative put it later, “left a smoking hole where the Republican Party once stood.”
“We screwed up,” says party Chairman Michael Steele. Conservatives were “bamboozled,” says former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken. “Betrayed” and “hijacked,” says veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie. The administration was a conservative “impostor,” writes commentator Bruce Bartlett. Bush operatives “were afraid of ideas,” Newt Gingrich charges. “ Tokyo Rove” was a recent entry on Michelle Malkin’s website.
Rove’s overall tenure, Michelle Malkin once wrote, was a “mark of self-delusion and blindness that has damaged the White House and the Beltway GOP.”
When I arrived in the Bush administration, I, too, had bought into the idea of Karl Rove as super genius. Besides, he was, and remains, an easy person to like—funny, charming, with an encyclopedic knowledge of politics. In an administration that sometimes seemed like a polite Southern cotillion, Rove stood out with his frenetic energy, rather unkempt style, and proud political geekdom—Pig Pen and Dilbert meet Machiavelli. He played practical jokes on other members of the staff, such as moving the car of another senior administration official to a different spot in the West Wing parking lot so that he would believe it was stolen.
As an adviser and gadfly, Rove served a useful purpose. That changed after he was named deputy chief of staff in early 2005 and tried to assume absolute control of, well, practically everything. Once his portfolio was extended from political strategy to policy oversight to personnel, hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the administration in some way reported to him. The results were notorious: the botched Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court (when even conservatives abandoned the administration); the abrupt abandonment of Social Security reform (which was supposed to have been the centerpiece of Bush’s second term), and the failure to get a single major piece of conservative legislation through the Republican-led Congress.
As Bush’s top political strategist, Rove stubbornly insisted that Republicans would hold on to at least one house of Congress during the 2006 midterms, despite all evidence to the contrary. After the debacle, his stock never recovered in the White House.
But it was in personnel that the Rove operation proved most embarrassing for the president. The scandal over the firing of U.S. attorneys, which prompted a years-long congressional investigation, likely would have been a non-issue had it not been for Team Rove’s typically heavy-handed tactics.
Meanwhile, a cadre of young people with thin résumés but fierce loyalty to Rove were given near-unfettered power in departments and agencies, able to thwart experienced Cabinet secretaries from hiring consultants, experts, and even their own personal aides. Conservatives seeking jobs in the administration were blocked because they weren’t on an approved White House list. Such tactics needlessly impeded the operation of important Cabinet agencies—such as the Justice Department, the Defense Department, and others—during a time of war. Rove’s overall tenure, Michelle Malkin once wrote, was a "mark of self-delusion and blindness that has damaged the White House and the Beltway GOP."
When my book, Speech*Less: Tales of a White House Survivor, was published last fall, and conservatives learned that I was critical of Rove’s methods, I was privy to an outpouring of new revelations. A prominent national radio host told me that Rove’s operation used petty tactics, such as withdrawing White House invitations from commentators who said things that displeased them. A radio executive said the Bush White House told them explicitly who they were expected to blackball from their airwaves. A well-known Fox News personality said that the Bush-Rove influence was so strong at the network that he is constantly on guard to conceal his differences with them.
This side of the Rove operation—what critics call vengeful, destructive, and petty—was perhaps most vividly on display this year after Christine O’Donnell’s Senate primary victory in Delaware over a liberal Republican favored by Rove. Although no good could come of it since O’Donnell had already triumphed, Rove attacked her anyway—as well as the Delaware voters who defied him—in one of the most instantly infamous temper tantrums ever captured on live television.
The Fox News attack—during which Rove questioned O’Donnell’s mental stability and suggested she wouldn’t receive NRSC support—irreparably damaged Rove with a large segment of the GOP. One of among scores of scornful conservative bloggers quickly dubbed the scene “one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Fox News history.” Most noteworthy to conservatives about the attack on O’Donnell, however, was that Rove most likely agreed with her political views. Nonetheless, he would rather support a liberal Republican (who he likely wouldn’t agree with) simply so the party could potentially grab a thin, mandate-deprived majority in the Senate. The sense of a lack of principles seemed only to be underscored when Rove, under intense fire, backed off his harsh criticisms.
This in essence has always been the Rove political strategy—attaining short-term political victories in lieu of the harder work of articulating a coherent philosophy, and then disparaging anyone standing in his way.
Those who raised questions about Homeland Security legislation recommended by the administration in 2002, instead of being debated on the merits, were labeled as uninterested in keeping the country safe from terrorism. On immigration, opponents of the Bush-Kennedy-McCain-Rove approach were told they didn’t “want to do what was right for America.” Republicans who questioned the Bush strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq were, according to Rove’s allies, “unpatriotic conservatives.”
Rove’s “51 percent approach”—the us-versus-them strategy—was the exact opposite of that pursued by the president Rove says he admires. “Ronald Reagan never started with percentages,” a former high-level Reagan aide critical of Rove recently said. “Reagan started with principles.”
The party still hasn't rinsed itself clean from the Rove-Gillespie approach, as vapid and intellectually lazy as Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Obamas’ alleged “terrorist fist bump,” the nutty birther movement, the lame controversy over who is wearing an American flag pin on their lapel, and books claiming Obama is “inviting” a terrorist attack—all are legacies of a strategy focused on demonization over debate, tactics over ideas. This approach has disillusioned even Republicans. By the end of the Bush administration, the GOP ranked at the bottom of public-approval polls. Though a reclusive Bush’s numbers are rebounding, according to some polls, his party’s apparently aren’t. Even as they surge against Democratic candidates for Congress, the Republican Party, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this August, is at its lowest approval rating—ever. Clearly voters haven’t been seduced by a brilliant Rovian strategy this year, but instead simply are intent on sending a message to the Obama Democrats amid a struggling economy with the only available option.
Having helped President Bush leave office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history and the Republican Party hit unprecedented lows, the vaunted Rove operation has not fared much better since, revealing themselves as woefully out of sync with the mood of the GOP base.
In 2009, the Rovians failed to get the Republican National Committee to approve their choice for party chairman—and were widely believed to be behind the retaliatory attacks against the candidate who did win, Michael Steele. This year, Rove urged Republicans to keep their distance from the Tea Party movement, undoubtedly because Tea Party organizers have made no secret of their intent to push aside Rove and others in the GOP establishment. Again, the party has ignored his advice. According to a recent poll, an astonishing 71 percent of GOPers express affinity with the Tea Partiers. (The remaining 29 percent, one presumes, is sulking with Rove and Gillespie at Morton’s Steakhouse.)
In primaries this year, Republican voters in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, and Utah, have rejected—en masse—the candidates preferred by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Rove is said to informally advise. The Conservative Party candidate Tom Tancredo—a known enemy of Rove—is trouncing the GOP-backed candidate in the race for governor of Colorado.
But the most obvious repudiation of Rove this year has taken place in his home state of Texas, where Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (supported by Rove and the Bush family) sought to unseat the more conservative governor of Texas, Rick Perry. In a primary contest cast in some quarters as a battle between a Rove acolyte and a Rove enemy (he and Gov. Perry had a well-chronicled falling out), the once-popular Hutchison floundered so badly that she didn't even get a respectable enough margin to qualify for a runoff.
Rove, of course, still has his advocates, and a powerful reach. His longtime deputy, Barry Jackson, is a top official for House Minority Leader John Boehner; William McGurn, a confidant from the Bush years, is not only a Wall Street Journal columnist but a high-level aide to Rupert Murdoch, giving Rove an ally in the executive offices of Fox News. Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor, is similarly a close friend. And Steve Schmidt, who ran the McCain campaign in 2008, is a Rove protégé.
Rove also has access to a few major donors from the Bush years. The fact that his new political organization, Crossroads, is almost wholly dependent on those millionaires proves that his is not a grassroots awakening. Reportedly the largest Rove donor is Texas billionaire Bob Perry, a longtime associate who funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that seriously hobbled Senator John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004. Rove always has denied having a role in the Swift Boat attacks.
Among journalists, the influential columnist Mike Allen of Politico is widely known to be a reliable bulletin board for Rove’s interests and activities.
But even this impressive reach might not save Rove. If a new wave of conservatives washes ashore in Washington after this election, there is every indication that Rove and his friends, instead of basking in credit, may need to grab a life raft of their own.
Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.