Life Imitates Patriots

Karl Rove: The Pragmatic Businessman

Paul Krugman suggests today that Karl Rove may not be the evil political super-genius of liberal imagination, but instead primarily a shrewd businessman.

This perception is just the latest example of life imitating Patriots. For those who prefer a non-fictive treatment of Republican political operatives, Krugman's comment may make timely again this assessment of Karl Rove's career I published back in 2007.

This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections. It was a politics that treated the problems of governance as secondary. But of course governance is what incumbents get judged on — and since 2004, the negative verdict on President Bush’s governance has created a lethal political environment for Republican candidates.

Inspiring rhetoric and solemn promises can do only so much for an incumbent administration. Can it win wars? Can it respond to natural disasters? Can it safeguard the nation’s borders? Can it fill positions of responsibility with worthy appointees? If it cannot do those things, not even the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation can save it.

This is not to say Karl Rove’s detractors have him pegged. For instance, they often accuse him of practicing “wedge politics” and fomenting “polarization.” They never seem to understand that polarization and wedge politics are very different things, indeed direct opposites.

Wedge politics unites a large constituency on one side, while splitting the coalition on the other side. In the 1970s, crime was a wedge issue: pushing white urban Democrats away from their black and liberal New Deal allies. In this strict sense, the only wedge issue Mr. Rove deployed was immigration, and he deployed it against his own side, dividing business donors from the conservative voting base.

Polarization, however, is Karl Rove’s specialty. He united his own base on one side — and united his opponents on the other. Al Gore and John Kerry each won 48 percent, the best back-to-back performance by a losing party since the 19th century. Play-to-the-base politics can be a smart strategy — so long as your base is larger than your opponents’.

But it has been apparent for many years that the Democratic base is growing faster than the Republican base.