Don’t miss Bob Geiger’s Saturday cartoons.
If you’re near a newstand today, look for the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (cover art: gray storm clouds over the White House). This is the “Lessons of a Failed Presidency” edition. I haven’t read it all yet, but I assure you Joshua Green’s “The Rove Presidency” by itself is worth the price of the issue. (If you’re already a subscriber, you can read it online here.) A few snips:
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.
In a nutshell, Rove believed he could create a political realignment like the ones brought about by the Civil War and the Great Depression.
Rove’s idea was to use the levers of government to create an effect that ordinarily occurs only in the most tumultuous periods in American history. He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove’s plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a “faith-based initiative” directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column. His plan would lead, he believed, to a period of Republican dominance like the one that followed McKinley’s election.
You’ll notice that most of these initiatives never came to pass, and the ones that did (like No Child Left Behind) are increasingly unpopular and will likely be axed once the Bushies are gone.
Rove’s vision had a certain abstract conceptual logic to it, much like the administration’s plan to spread democracy by force in the Middle East. If you could invade and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking went, democracy would spread across the region. Likewise, if you could recast major government programs to make them more susceptible to market forces, broader support for the Republican Party would ensue. But in both cases the visionaries ignored the enormous difficulty of carrying off such seismic changes.
Green writes that Rove has vanity and hubris on an oceanic scale. In Rove’s World, his knowledge is infallible, his ideas are the only true ideas, and he demands deference even from senior members of Congress.
Rove’s behavior toward Congress stood out. “Every once in a while Rove would come to leadership meetings, and he definitely considered himself at least an equal with the leaders in the room,” a Republican aide told me. “But you have to understand that Congress is a place where a certain decorum is expected. Even in private, staff is still staff. Rove would come and chime in as if he were equal to the speaker. Cheney sometimes came, too, and was far more deferential than Rove—and he was the vice president.” Other aides say Rove was notorious for interrupting congressional leaders and calling them by their first name. …
… A revealing pattern of behavior emerged from my interviews. Rove plainly viewed his standing as equal to or exceeding that of the party’s leaders in Congress and demanded what he deemed his due. Yet he was also apparently annoyed at what came with his White House eminence, complaining to colleagues when members of Congress called him to consult about routine matters he thought were beneath his standing—something that couldn’t have endeared him to the legislature.
Rove pretty much had a free hand to run Bush’s domestic agenda — Rove’s agenda, really — just as Cheney was in charge of foreign policy while the Boy King rode his bicycle and took naps. But Rove ran White House policy like he ran his political campaigns, and that was his undoing. His style in campaigns was to be nasty and divisive, and that’s how he pushed the Bush domestic agenda — by division.
Rove, forever in thrall to the mechanics of winning by dividing, consistently lacked the ability to transcend the campaign mind-set and see beyond the struggle nearest at hand. In a world made new by September 11, he put terrorism and war to work in an electoral rather than a historical context, and used them as wedge issues instead of as the unifying basis for the new political order he sought.”
“Rove’s style as a campaign consultant was to plot out well in advance of a race exactly what he would do and to stick with it no matter what,” writes Green. Going into Bush’s second term, Rove charged ahead with his well-plotted strategy and pushed Social Security reform. As support for the Iraq War soured, the Bush White House continued to put all of its energy into Social Security reform, utterly tone deaf to the changing national mood.
“The great cost of the Social Security misadventure was lost support for the war,” says a former Bush official. “When you send troops to war, you have no higher responsibility as president than to keep the American people engaged and maintain popular support. But for months and months after it became obvious that Social Security was not going to happen, nobody—because of Karl’s stature in the White House—could be intellectually honest in a meeting and say, ‘This is not going to happen, and we need an exit strategy to get back onto winning ground.’ It was a catastrophic mistake.” …
… The Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio says, “People who were concerned about the war, we lost. People who were concerned about the economy, we lost. People who were concerned about health care, we lost. It goes on and on. Any of those things would have helped refocus the debate or at least put something else out there besides the war. We came out of the election and what was our agenda for the next term? Social Security. There was nothing else that we were doing. We allowed ourselves as a party to be defined by—in effect, to live and die by—the war in Iraq.”
Another factor: I’ve thought many times that the Bush White House has a weird inability to respond to unexpected events. Whenever something happens that was not on the schedule — like 9/11 or the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or Dick Cheney’s hunting “accident” — they are flummoxed. Often they are slow to recognize the significance of an event until after everyone else on the planet has recognized it first. They are so focused on their pre-planned agenda they can’t see anything else. Green suggests this blinkered view is mostly Rove’s doing. In fact, Rove may have advised Bush to blow off Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina clearly changed the public perception of Bush’s presidency. Less examined is the role Rove played in the defining moment of the administration’s response: when Air Force One flew over Louisiana and Bush gazed down from on high at the wreckage without ordering his plane down. Bush advisers Matthew Dowd and Dan Bartlett wanted the president on the ground immediately, one Bush official told me, but were overruled by Rove for reasons that are still unclear: “Karl did not want the plane to land in Louisiana.” Rove’s political acumen seemed to be deserting him altogether.
Most of all, Rove never seems to have figured out that at some point the White House had to put aside campaigning and start governing.
“It is a dangerous distraction to know as much about politics as Karl Rove knows,” Bruce Reed, the domestic-policy chief in Bill Clinton’s administration, told me. “If you know every single poll number on every single issue and every interest group’s objection and every political factor, it can be paralyzing to try to make an honest policy decision. I think the larger, deeper problem was that they never fully appreciated that long-term success depended on making sure your policies worked.”
And, of course …
Rove has no antecedent in modern American politics, because no president before Bush thought it wise to give a political adviser so much influence. Rove wouldn’t be Rove, in other words, were Bush not Bush. That Vice President Cheney also hit a historic high-water mark for influence says a lot about how the actual president sees fit to govern. All rhetoric about “leadership” aside, Bush will be viewed as a weak executive who ceded far too much authority. Rove’s failures are ultimately his.
Now Rove and Bush are reduced to whining about how history will vindicate them. As if.