Finger Pointing

Republicans Allowed Karl Rove to Mislead Them Again

Misreading the present and ignoring the past, the GOP saw what it wanted to see, writes Matt Latimer.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

The crime: Mitt Romney’s inexplicable defeat. The suspects: everybody in the world, except the people who really deserve it.

The first obvious target, of course, is Mitt Romney himself, who managed to lose to a president with one of the worst economic records in memory. Then eyes turned to Romney’s campaign staff, which somehow could not turn a vibrant, brilliant, Cary Grant–in–the–making into the next president of the United States. Perhaps the fault lies with President Obama, who only pretended that nobody in America liked him. Or it was those tricky young people, who somehow managed to vote when everyone assumed they were too lazy to bother. Perhaps it was Nate Silver and his crazy belief in “theory” and “science.” Or the latest suspects: Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley in the conservatory with the lead pipe.

Personally I love scapegoating as much as the next guy—was Jar Jar Binks really the only reason the Star Wars prequels were terrible?—but I can’t let them pin this one on Martha and Candy. Nor can I allow Republicans to pull an O.J.—stopping at nothing until they find the “real killers” of the 2012 campaign.

We know where they are. We know who they are. We’ve been here before. Years ago, as an escapee of the George W. Bush administration, I wrote a whole book about it. The only question is whether or not enough Republicans want to do anything to solve the problem.

This is not the first election cycle in which Republicans have been shell-shocked by reality. Six years earlier, Republicans across the country believed they would retain control of the House and Senate. That’s because Karl Rove and his acolytes in the Bush administration and the Republican Party told us so.

All the polls were wrong, they said. They were hopelessly biased or skewed by liberal media organizations out to suppress the vote. Republicans were more popular than people thought. Billionaire donors were urged to stick with the party and its leadership or pay the price. Anyone who disagreed with their thinking, including fellow Republicans, was a traitor, or a liar, or a dupe. Say, any of that sound familiar?

In 2008, Republicans again preached the gospel of Rove and his allies—Ed Gillespie, Dana Perino, and basically everyone tied to American Crossroads. They told us that only John McCain could defeat this amateur, Barack Obama. Obama was too liberal for the electorate, they said. He had too much baggage. The country liked the Bush administration’s approach more than the “biased” polls let on. McCain was a perfect nominee because he was not an ideologue. (At one point after his loss to Bush in 2000, McCain even flirted with being a Democrat.) This guy was back and forth on so many issues that nobody was ever certain where he might land. That made him an ideal candidate to reach out to moderates and independents. Say, any of that sound familiar?

In 2012, these same people came back again, as overconfident and unchastened as ever. This time, they had most of the right-wing media on their side, regurgitating their views and attitudes to the exclusion of all others. Mitt Romney was the perfect candidate to stop Obama—so much so that anyone who got in his way was immediately attacked and marginalized. Rove used his perch as an “analyst” on Fox News to personally attack not only Newt Gingrich (who I worked for), but Herman Cain, and Sarah Palin, and Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman, and on and on. So what if Mitt Romney once berated the Republican Party, the Reagan administration, pro-lifers, and the religious right—in other words, his own party’s base. Republicans needed him to win.

GOP donors and activists were fed more delusions than TV executives greenlighting the Oprah Winfrey Network. President Obama was deeply unpopular, even though no hard evidence showed that was ever true. Obamacare would dismantle the Democratic majority in the Senate, though parts of it were popular across the electorate and Republicans offered no tangible alternative. All the polls were biased and wrong, except the ones Republicans liked. The party’s message was focused on demonizing the Democrats, not putting forward controversial ideas because ideas weren’t needed. And Barack Obama was elected again.

When I worked with Rove briefly at the White House, I found him to be a smart, energetic, capable man. Maybe more than I even realized. In the past two election cycles, he and his acolytes have personally helped Barack Obama get elected and yet made millions in the process. You tell me who the dummy is—Rove or the people who keep listening to him and funding him. Come to think of it, who really deserves the blame for what’s befallen the GOP?

Nobody forced George W. Bush to make Karl Rove his all-knowing, all-powerful political adviser. Nobody forced Fox News to put him and his prognostications all across the network, often to the exclusion of all others. Nobody told billionaires to throw their money to a person someone marvelously described as a “GOP money incinerator.” Nobody told the media to make a fallible person with a dubious electoral winning streak the “genius” behind the GOP. What if the culprits we are all seeking are right before us—in the mirror?

Finally, it seems, donors and many GOP activists are waking up to the fact that there’s a world out there different from what they’ve heard about on Fox News and what they’ve been told by those in charge of the party’s machinery. The billion-dollar question is whether they will really do anything to change it. The danger of indulging delusions is that they always welcome you back.