AUGUST 13, 2007
Every political reporter has a Karl Rove story, and I have mine. I met Rove in Austin in 1995 when I was writing a profile of presidential aspirant Phil Gramm. Rove had done direct mail for Gramm's campaigns for Senate, and I expected nothing but praise for the senator. Rove did praise him, but he would occasionally interject a surprisingly critical note about Gramm. He said that people in Texas were "sick of being dunned for money" by Gramm. Gramm was, Rove said, "one of the least flexible people I've ever met in public policy." I left the interview very proud of myself for having cleverly extracted these candid admissions from a Gramm supporter. They went directly into my profile of Gramm. Several years later, I realized that Rove had known exactly what he was doing. He was already working for George W. Bush and had his eye on a Bush presidency in 2000 and didn't want to do anything to help a rival Texas politician.
In this incident--and in hundreds of others--Rove showed himself to be a master of political guile. In managing Bush's election in 2000 and reelection in 2004, he also showed himself to be an expert tactician. But Rove has always wanted to be remembered as something more than a successful consultant--he wants to be remembered as "the architect," in George W. Bush's words, of a new realignment that would do for the Republican party what Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did for the Democratic Party. As early as 1998, Rove was predicting that the 2000 election would be a realigning election similar to that of 1896. "I look at this time as 1896, the time where we saw the rise of William McKinley and his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt...That was the last time we had a shift in political paradigm," Rove told the Austin American-Statesman in November 1998. Rove suggested that in 2000 a "charismatic leader" championing a "new paradigm" could displace "the old paradigm of Cold War politics and the old New Deal." Now who could he have been referring to?
Rove continued to promote the 1896 analogy during the 2000 election, promising a new Republican realignment that would include Hispanics, suburbanites, and independents, but Vice President Al Gore's popular vote edge temporarily stilled Rove's talk of realignment. After the 2002 election, however, he was back again talking up 1896 and realignment. He told an audience at the University of Utah after the November election that it wasn't just that Republicans had won seats in Congress in the first off-year election, but that they had picked up 195 state legislative seats when on average the party in power is expected to lose 350. "We are 545 seats ahead of where we should [be] if we were suffering the normal depredations of the first off-year election," Rove declared. "I think something...fundamental is happening there, but we will only know it retrospectively, in two years or four years or six years [when we] look back and say the dam began to break in 2002."
After Bush's victory in 2004, Rove was at it again. Here he is with Mike Wallace of Fox News:
WALLACE: I know that your favorite election is William McKinley's victory in 1896. And neither of us were there, despite what people may think. Does this election have the same potential to grow the size and give a governing majority to the Republican Party for decades?
ROVE: It does. We'll only tell with time. I mean, the victory in 1896 was similarly narrow, and I mean--not narrow, similarly structured. But it took--you know, we only knew that it was an election that realigned American politics years afterwards. And I think the same thing will be here.
Last November's election finally silenced Rove. In that election, the Democrats didn't merely win back the Congress--which Rove could blame on Congressional corruption--but met Rove's own standard for a genuine political reversal by winning back 321 state legislative seats. To be sure, the 2006 elections didn't show that a Democratic majority was about to displace the Republican one, but they did show that Rove had not realigned American politics. At best, conditions had returned to what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called an "unstable equilibrium." At worst for Rove, the country was headed (as it seemed to be from 1996 to 2000) toward a Democratic majority.
What, then, is Rove's political legacy? In his public statements about the 2002 and 2004 elections, Rove dutifully credited Bush and the "Bush agenda," but in his discussions with political journalists, he conveyed a different message: that these victories were the product of a novel new strategy that he had developed after 2000. The new strategy consisted of expanding the Republican base in the "exurbs" and rural areas; using a "72-Hour Task Force" to mobilize that base on election day; and using discrete spending programs and micro-targeting to pick off vulnerable Democratic constituencies among Hispanics, African-Americans, and Catholics. The theory was that with demography favoring the Republicans, these tactical maneuvers would be sufficient to guarantee a Republican majority. In One Party Country, a laudatory book about Rove that appeared before the 2006 election, Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten wrote that "like a dominant sports franchise, the Republican Party has put in place a series of structural and operational advantages that give the GOP a political edge for the foreseeable future."
Rove can certainly take credit for these election victories, but it wasn't really his micro-targeting and his focus on expanding the Republican base that accounted for the Republicans' success. It was the effects that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 had on American politics. As political psychologists have now discovered, these effects, by evoking a widespread fear of death, went beyond the usual calculus of issues and interests. They made Americans more susceptible to charismatic appeals and crusades and to what psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski have called "worldview defense." This includes a hostility to what is foreign and preferences for tradition over social experimentation and religious over secular norms. (I'm writing more about this phenomenon in an upcoming issue of TNR.) As these effects have abated, the Republicans have once again found themselves without a platform on which to build a majority.
Rove's most brilliant election success--if you leave aside Bush's first win as governor in 1994--was probably 2000 rather than 2002 or 2004. In that election, Gore and the Democrats had an enormous advantage. Bill Clinton was a popular president; the economy was still buoyant; Gore certainly had credibility (compared to the callow Texan) as a national leader; and the electorate was moving away from the conservatism of the Reagan and Gingrich years toward a more centrist politics. To fit this new post-Reaganite electorate, Rove packaged Bush as a centrist Republican who could also retain the loyalty of the party's conservative base. He was a "compassionate conservative" who championed money for education and condemned the Republican House for trying to eviscerate the earned income tax credit. It's now forgotten, but Bush refused to say he would make opposition to abortion a litmus test either for his vice president or for Supreme Court nominees. In the 2000 election, Bush won the typically centrist vote of Independents, which his father had lost in 1992 and Bob Dole had lost in 1996.
Legend has it that Rove, chastened by Bush's popular vote loss, changed his strategy immediately after the election, but it's not clear from what Bush did in those first months that he abandoned centrism. He worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy on education reform; he got Congress to pass a tax bill by co-opting Democratic senators and a Democratic proposal for an immediate tax rebate. After the September 11 attacks, Bush's popularity soared, but he stayed above the fray in the November 2001 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, which the Democrats won.
It was only after those elections that Rove and Bush changed course: they decided to focus the 2002 elections on the "war on terror." Rove made that clear in a January 2002 address to a Republican luncheon in Austin:
We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America. Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe.
That was the single most important tactical decision that Rove made, and it would account for Republican victories in 2002 and 2004. As the 2002 race began in August, voters preferred Democratic House candidates in a generic Gallup Poll by 50 to 42 percent. With the Enron scandal in the background, and the economy still in recession, it looked as though the Democrats could increase their margin in the Senate and take back the House. But in September, the Bush administration began a two-month campaign of focusing on the war on terror--conjoined in the public mind at that point with the threat from Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." In the last weeks, Republican candidates charged the Democrats with undermining legislation for the Department of Homeland Security; and Bush began a whistlestop tour--seventeen stops in fifteen states in the last week--warning that "we must assume the enemy is coming and we've got to do everything we can to protect the homeland." This appeal resonated--and not just in exurbs and rural areas. In Missouri and Minnesota, for instance, Republican Senate victories were made possible by a shift in votes from Democratic to Republican in upscale suburbs.
In 2004, Rove did apply the strategy of expanding the base and micro-targeting with which he has since been associated, but he ran the election, like that of 2002, around the threat of a terrorist attack--identifying the war in Iraq with the war in terror. Though the Iraq war diminished Bush's support among college-educated women, Rove's strategy worked in rural areas and exurbs and among white working-class voters who had not finished college. In 2000, Bush had won white working class women by seven percent. In 2004, he won them by 18 percent. In 2004, a plurality of these voters identified terrorism and security over the economy and jobs or the war in Iraq as their most important issue.
Eliminate the appeal of September 11 as packaged by Rove, and the Republicans would have been back to where they were on September 10, 2001--facing a resurgent Democratic party and an electorate that was moving to the center. And that's exactly what happened in the 2006 elections.
After Bush won the 2004 election, Rove came to believe his own bullshit. He decided that Republicans could really win simply by expanding their own base. He convinced Bush to wager his own domestic program on privatizing social security. He cooperated with the House Republicans in polarizing Congress and the electorate. And when Bush's popularity sagged, he tried to use the war in terror to revive it. What Rove failed to realize was that the strategy he employed in 2004 was already obsolete--and that the tactics of micro-targeting and get-out-the-vote wouldn't be sufficient any more to pull out victories. Rove and Bush should have gone back to the lessons of 2000 campaign. After his narrow 2004 victory, Bush needed to move back to the political center on domestic and foreign policy. Instead, they tacked further right. That wasn't entirely Rove's fault--he probably had little say over the war in Iraq--but he certainly must get some of the blame.
Rove's brilliance had lay earlier in his ability to adapt his strategy to new circumstances. But after his success in the 2004 election, he became as inflexible in his political strategy as he knocked his former client Phil Gramm for being in his public policies--and he and the Bush administration suffered the consequences.