We’ll have Karl Rove to kick around awhile longer, unfortunately. But Rove’s glory days may be behind him. Richard Wolffe writes in Newsweek that Karl Rove just plain miscalculated the midterm elections:
Rove’s miscalculations began well before election night. The polls and pundits pointed to a Democratic sweep, but Rove dismissed them all. In public, he predicted outright victory, flashing the V sign to reporters flying on Air Force One. He wasn’t just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his “metrics” were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the Houseâ€”enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientistsâ€”to study just how wrong the polls were.
I guess the panel idea is shelved for now.
His confidence buoyed everyone inside the West Wing, especially the president. Ten days before the elections, House Majority Leader John Boehner visited Bush in the Oval Office with bad news. He told Bush that the party would lose Tom DeLay’s old seat in Texas, where Bush was set to campaign. Bush brushed him off, Boehner recalls. “Get me Karl,” the president told an aide. “Karl has the numbers.”
On the other hand, Ken Mehlman’s numbers were pretty close to reality: “the GOP would lose 23 in the House (5 short of the final tally), 5 in the Senate (1 shy) and 6 governors (spot on).” Yet Mehlman’s the one who is stepping down. (Not that I mind.)
At Slate, John Dickerson reports that beltway Republicans are not blaming Rove for the midterm results.
…when I went looking for what I expected to be a massive orgy of Rove schadenfreude, I actually found that, for the most part, Republicans were defending him.
They started by arguing that the election could have been a lot worse. Conditions really called for a 35- to 45-seat loss in the House. Rove and Ken Mehlman built a ground operation over the last seven years that limited the losses. They knew where to drop all the cash they’d raised and how to micro-target voters. I find this silly. No one praises football coaches for losing by five touchdowns instead of six.
More plausible is the claim that much of what flipped the election was beyond Rove’s control. He couldn’t reverse the violence on the ground in Iraq. Could he have pushed Bush to drop Rumsfeld earlier? Maybe, if he’d made that case a year ago, but dropping Rumsfeld too close to the election would have looked desperate and would have enraged the Rummy-loving conservatives.
But the most persuasive argument of Rove’s defenders is that congressional Republicans deserve the blame for Tuesday’s outcome. What sapped the energy and enthusiasm of the base were Congress’ ethical lapses (culminating in the Foley fiasco), excessive spending, and addiction to earmarks. Rove allies are quick to point to exit polls showing that people mentioned “corruption” as their top concern when voting (but remember, Jack Abramoff visited the White House, too).
Dickerson points out that Rove still has a lot of power — “There are still commissions and ambassadorships and corporate boards that Rove can pack with Tuesday’s losers.” But I have a problem with this:
Even if Rove leaves Washington tomorrow, he’ll remain a leading light of the conservative movement for the unapologetic, even brutal, way he fights for conservative ideas.
Somehow, I doubt Karl gives a hoo-haw about “conservative ideas.” Karl’s interest in “ideas” begins and ends with which ones he can exploit for political purposes.
Take, for example, Karl Rove’s support of the Christian Right. According to Gary Wills’s recent article “A Country Rules by Faith” in the New York Review of Books (emphasis added):
… The evangelicals had complained for years that they were not able to affect policy because liberals left over from previous administrations were in all the health and education and social service bureaus, at the operational level. They had specific people they objected to, and they had specific people with whom to replace them, and Karl Rove helped them do just that.
It is common knowledge that the Republican White House and Congress let “K Street” lobbyists have a say in the drafting of economic legislation, and on the personnel assigned to carry it out, in matters like oil production, pharmaceutical regulation, medical insurance, and corporate taxes. It is less known that for social services, evangelical organizations were given the same right to draft bills and install the officials who implement them. Karl Rove had cultivated the extensive network of religious right organizations, and they were consulted at every step of the way as the administration set up its policies on gays, AIDS, condoms, abstinence programs, creationism, and other matters that concerned the evangelicals. All the evangelicals’ resentments under previous presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and the first Bush, were now being addressed.
Yet Rove-watchers James Moore and Wayne Slater say that Rove is agnostic and (according to David Kuo) calls evangelical leaders “nuts.”
I say Rove isn’t in politics because he cares deeply about conservative values, or conservative government, or even the United States of America. I don’t think he cares much about any of those things. Then why is he in politics? It might be useful to reflect on Karl Rove the “human being.” From Wikipedia:
Rove was born in Denver, Colorado and later raised in Nevada, the second of five children. His biological father abandoned the family early on and his mother remarried. His new adoptive father, Louis Claude Rove Jr., was a mineral geologist, and his mother, Reba Wood, was a gift shop manager. His older brother is Eric P. Rove, and his younger sister is Reba A. Rove-Hammond.
In The Architect, a new book chronicling Karl Rove’s life and conservative agenda, authors James Moore and Wayne Slater, reveal Rove’s father, Louis Rove, was homosexual.
Louis Rove left his family during the 1969 Christmas holidays and moved to Los Angeles where he eventually “came out.” According to Rove’s father’s best friend, an openly gay man named Joseph Koons, “Louie didn’t hide the fact that he was gay. But he didn’t play it up either.” The Architect describes Louis Rove as a shy man, encumbered by his three hundred pound figure. To encourage Rove to socialize, Joseph Koons, invited him to join a retired gay men’s group called the “Old Farts Club,” jokingly referred to among the men as the “Rainbow Casket.” …
… In December 1969, Rove’s father left the family, and divorced Rove’s mother soon afterward. After his parents’ separation, Rove learned from his aunt and uncle that the man who had raised him was not his biological father [Rove was about 19 at this point]; both he and his older brother Eric were the children of another man. Rove has expressed great love and admiration for his adoptive father and for “how selfless” his love had been.
Rove’s mother committed suicide in Reno, Nevada, in 1981, when Rove was 30 years old. He did not meet his biological father until he was in his 40s.
I’m saying that when your family history is that bleeped up, you either rise above it and become a bleeping saint, or you have Issues. Damn big ugly mother-bleeping Issues. So which way did Karl go? Joshua Green wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Karl Rove in a Corner” (November 2004):
It is frequently said of him, in hushed tones when political folks are doing the talking, that he leaves a trail of damage in his wakeâ€”a reference to the substantial number of people who have been hurt, politically and personally, through their encounters with him. Rove’s reputation for winning is eclipsed only by his reputation for ruthlessness, and examples abound of his apparent willingness to cross moral and ethical lines.
Face it; Rove isn’t in politics to champion “ideas.” He’s in politics so he can act out his many unresolved Issues and get paid for it.
Rove attended “nearly half a dozen colleges without getting a degree” says this page. This suggests a lack of direction. But early on he “found himself” in politics. When he dropped out of college for the last time in 1971 he took a job with the College Republican National Committee and never looked back. In the late 1970s he began working in Republican election campaigns and founded a direct mail consulting firm. Before getting involved with the Bushies and the 2000 elections, most of his successes as an election campaign manager were in Texas and Alabama. Back to Joshua Green, writing in 2004:
If there is any compelling reason to think that Rove may be out of his depth in this election, it is an odd lacuna in his storied career: no one I spoke with could recall his ever having to run an incumbent in a tough re-election race. This is partly a by-product of his dominance. Rove’s power in Texas was such that he could essentially handpick his candidates, and once elected, they rarely lost. And he spent most of his career in the favorable terrain of the Deep South. One reason Rove was spared re-election fights is that as demographic changes swept across the South, and Republicans in Texas and Alabama began displacing Democrats, the likelihood that a Democrat could depose a sitting Republican became remote. Rove has long excelled at knocking off incumbents in tight races. Now, at last, he must defend one.
Now we know that Rove succeeded, by the skin of his teeth and with a little help from his friends in Ohio. But I think two points are significant: (1) most of Rove’s campaign experience was in the South; and (2) Rove’s strength is knocking off incumbents with aggressively nasty campaigning. He generally doesn’t hang around to see if his candidates can actually govern or not.
With Rove there’s an almost total disconnect between politics and government. For example, in the Richard Wolffe column linked above we find:
Rove blames complacent candidates for much of the GOP’s defeat. He says even some scandal-tainted members won when they followed what he calls “the program” of voter contacts and early voting. “Where some people came up short was where they didn’t have a program,” he told NEWSWEEK.
In fact, Karl Rove’s influence over the White House and the Boy King may explain much of the Bush Administration’s near total dysfunction. Ron Suskind wrote in Esquire, “Why Are These Men Laughing?” (January 2003):
They heard that I was writing about Karl Rove, seeking to contextualize his role as a senior adviser in the Bush White House, and they began calling, some anonymously, some not, saying that they wanted to help and leaving phone numbers. The calls from members of the White House staff were solemn, serious. Their concern was not only about politics, they said, not simply about Karl pulling the president further to the right. It went deeper; it was about this administrationâ€™s ability to focus on the substance of governingâ€”issues like the economy and social security and education and health careâ€”as opposed to its clear political acumen, its ability to win and enhance power. And so it seemed that each time I made an inquiry about Karl Rove, I received in return a top-to-bottom critique of the White Houseâ€™s basic functions, so profound is Roveâ€™s influence.
I made these inquiries in part because last spring, when I spoke to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, he sounded an alarm about the unfettered rise of Rove in the wake of senior adviser Karen Hughesâ€™s resignation: “Iâ€™ll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. . . . They are going to have to really step up, but it wonâ€™t be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary.”
One senior White House official told me that heâ€™d be summarily fired if it were known we were talking. “But many of us feel itâ€™s our dutyâ€”our obligation as Americansâ€”to get the word out that, certainly in domestic policy, there has been almost no meaningful consideration of any real issues. Itâ€™s just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. Itâ€™s depressing. Domestic Policy Council meetings are a farce. This leaves shoot-from-the-hip political calculationsâ€”mostly from Karlâ€™s shopâ€”to triumph by default. No one balances Karl. Forget it. That was Andyâ€™s cry for help.”
Suskind quoted the famous John DiIulio letter:
“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” says DiIulio. “What youâ€™ve got is everythingâ€”and I mean everythingâ€”being run by the political arm. Itâ€™s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” …
… “I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions,” he writes. “There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical nonstop, twenty-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.”
Now that Rove’s had his ass handed to him on a plate, he still makes little connection between how elected officials do their jobs and their chances for re-election. He admits scandal and corruption took a toll, but that was just part of “the general distaste that people have for all things Washington.” And Iraq may have been a factor, but Lieberman won, so maybe not.
(I agree with Arianna Huffington on the Lamont-Lieberman race; Lamont lost ground when he stopped pounding an antiwar message — “Lieberman started sounding like Jack Murtha, while Lamont got off the Iraq train that had carried him to victory in the primary.” See also “America has had Enough of Bush’s Disastrous Course in Iraq” by Rep. John Murtha.)
With tongue just a little in cheek — I hope — Will Bunch trotted out a theory that Bush and Rove blew the midterms on purpose as part of Rove’s dastardly brilliant plan to pin the disaster of Iraq on Democrats; see also Greg Mitchell’s comments. Will has one point right, which is that the Democratic Congress might actually force Bush into governing for a change, instead of just politicking, which may actually work in Bush’s favor. Jonathan Alter pretty much says the same thing.
I’ll believe it when I see it. Karl still whispers in Bush’s ear, and I don’t believe Karl has learned much from the thumpin’. I wrote a whole year ago —
What about Karl Rove, who has been trying to build a permanent Republican majority? Although Rove is supposed to be some kind of all-seeing evil genius, I wonder sometimes if he isnâ€™t more of an idiot savant. Heâ€™s brilliant at doing one thingâ€“building political power through sheer nastiness. He may not be wise enough to see the seeds of destruction he has planted.
I stand by that. I do not think Rove will change either tactics or strategy. He’s a one-trick pony. The methods that work so well in the South are finally causing revulsion in the rest of the nation. But Rove can’t see that. He’s still thinking about a permanent Republican majority. But if the national Republican Party doesn’t cut its ties to Karl Rove, it might find itself trapped in the deep South, nothing but a quaint artifact of history and southern culture.