Turd Blossom


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. He said that people in
Texas were "sick of being dunned for money" by Gramm. The senator,
Rove said, was "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. Several years later,
I realized that Rove had known exactly what he was doing. He was
already working for George W. Bush 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. But Rove has always wanted to be
something more than a master manipulator; he wanted to be "the
architect" (in Bush's words) of a realignment that would do for the
Republican Party what the New Deal had done for the Democratic
Party. As early as 1998, Rove was predicting that the 2000 election
would be as important as that of 1896, after which Republicans held
the White House for 28 of the next 36 years. "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. He would make the same point after Republicans
won House and Senate seats in 2002 and after he managed Bush's
reelection in 2004. "The victory in 1896 was similarly narrow," Rove
told Fox News in November 2004. "But ... we only knew that it was
an election that realigned American politics years afterward. And I
think the same thing will be true here."

Despite the sweeping Democratic victory in the 2006 election, Rove
has still not abandoned his dream. Interviewing Rove about his
imminent departure from the White House, The Wall Street Journal's
Paul Gigot asked whether the "new GOP William McKinley-style
majority he hoped to build [is] now in tatters." Rove said it was
not, citing the social conservatism of the young (a dubious claim
if there ever was one) and the reluctance of Americans to admit
defeat in Iraq. Rove's supporters in Washington have also come to
his defense. Right-wing icon Grover Norquist proclaimed that "Karl
Rove changed history," that his campaign leadership would "define
America for a generation." Other observers-- unable to overlook
last fall's GOP defeat--tempered their rhetoric but still lauded
Rove's Machiavellian accomplishments. His strategy, they judged,
might have failed, but no one could deny his tactical brilliance.
Rove might not have been an architect, in other words, but he was a
damn good carpenter. In truth, however, even this more modest
appraisal gives Rove too much credit. By the end, the floors and
walls of the House of Bush were crumbling, thanks largely to Rove's
miscues and machinations.

Rove's greatest election success-- if you leave aside Bush's first
win as governor in 1994--came in 2000. In that election, Democrats
had an enormous advantage: Bill Clinton was a popular president;
the economy was still buoyant; Al Gore had far more credibility as
a national leader than the callow Texan; and the electorate was
moving away from the conservatism of the Reagan and Gingrich years
toward a more centrist politics. To accommodate this new post-
Reaganite electorate, Rove packaged Bush as a "compassionate
conservative" who championed spending for education and condemned
the Republican House for trying to eviscerate the Earned Income Tax
Credit. It's now forgotten, but Bush refused to make opposition to
abortion a litmus test for new judges or for his vice president.
This strategy seemed to work. In the 2000 election, Bush won the
independent vote--something neither his father nor Bob Dole had been
able to do--and he cut into the Democratic advantage with women
voters and Hispanics.

Rove, of course, took credit for 2000, but he regarded the 2002 and
2004 elections as his signal achievements. He attributed his
success in these elections to his abandonment of the centrist
strategy of 2000 in favor of a three-pronged approach: 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 so-called micro-targeting to
pick off vulnerable Democratic sub-constituencies among Hispanics,
African Americans, Jews, and Catholics. The strategy was based on
the idea that, with demography favoring the Republicans--as voters
moved to the Sunbelt and the exurbs expanded--these maneuvers would
guarantee a Republican majority. And the strategy appeared to be
behind the GOP successes in 2002 and 2004. 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."

But what actually happened is considerably more complicated. Rove's
focus on expanding the Republican base did contribute to Bush's
victory in 2004, but, in both 2002 and 2004, it took second place
to the effect of the September 11 attacks, which scared the hell
out of the American people. As political psychologists have
recently discovered--and as I explore in greater detail on p.
17--that fear made Americans more susceptible to the kind of
charismatic appeal Bush could provide. It also widened and deepened
the appeal of social conservatism. What Rove did was to recognize
the full extent to which Bush and the Republicans could politically
take advantage of this fear.

He didn't recognize it at first, though. In fact, even though Bush's
popularity soared after September 11, it did not immediately
translate into political gains. When the president stayed above the
campaign fray in the November 2001 gubernatorial elections, the GOP
lost major races in New Jersey and Virginia. It was only after that
debacle that Rove and Bush decided to focus the 2002 elections on
the "war on terror." As Rove explained 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."

In the 2002 election, Rove used the fears created by September 11 to
engineer a turnaround in Republican political fortunes. In an August
2002 Gallup poll, voters had preferred Democratic House candidates
by to 42 percent. With the Enron scandal in the background and the
economy still in recession, it looked as though Democrats could
increase their margin in the Senate and take back the House. But,
in September, Rove and the Bush administration began focusing on
the war on terrorism--joined in the public mind at that point with
the threat from Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." In
mid- October, Republican candidates charged Democrats with
undermining legislation for the Department of Homeland Security; and
Bush began a whistlestop tour-- 17 stops in 15 states in the final
week before the election--warning that "we must assume the enemy is
coming and that we've got to do everything to protect the
homeland." This appeal resonated--and not just in exurbs and rural
areas. The GOP won Senate seats in Missouri and Minnesota, for
instance, because Democrats and independents in upscale suburbs
voted Republican.

In 2004, Rove had a more difficult task than in 2002, because many
parts of the electorate had become disenchanted with the war in
Iraq and were less vulnerable to Bush's charismatic appeals. For
example, college-educated women, who had favored Republican
congressional candidates by to 48 percent in 2002, backed
Democratic congressional candidates by 54 to 44 percent in 2004.
With these voters returning to the Democratic fold, Rove had to
rely on voters still susceptible to a politics that claimed Iraq to
be a front in the war on terrorism. With this appeal, Rove did
succeed in expanding the Republican vote in the exurbs and rural
areas; more importantly, he won support from constituencies that
were not part of the Republican base but had been up for grabs in
the past. In 2000, white working-class women preferred Bush by a
margin of 7 percent. In 2004, they preferred him by 18 percent
because a plurality identified terrorism and security as their most
important issue rather than the economy, jobs, or the war in Iraq.

The greatest increase in Republican votes came in Alabama, Georgia,
Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and
Wyoming--states where Bush and Rove barely ran campaigns, but where
the Republican stand on the war on terrorism had enormous appeal.
Without September 11, Rove would not have had a base to expand or
constituencies to target. Republicans would have been faced with an
electorate that was moving to the center--just as it had begun to do
in 2000--and would have had to fight for the voters in the middle.
As it was, the electorate of 2004 split roughly in half, and the
Republican half was sustained chiefly by the spell cast by
September 11. As voters' perceptions of the war on terrorism vied
with their growing awareness of the disaster in Iraq, the spell
began to lift, and what Rove took to be a permanent majority began
to disintegrate.

Rove, who had been able to adapt in the past to changed
circumstances, did not do so in Bush's second term. He was blinded
by his own theory of realignment. When Bush was reelected, Rove
apparently decided that Republicans really could win simply by
expanding their conservative base. Instead of attempting to move
Bush back to the political center, as he had done during the 2000
general election, he convinced Bush to wager his domestic program
on privatizing social security. He helped to polarize Congress and
to politicize every administration department and agency. And, when
Bush's popularity sagged, he tried to use the war on terrorism to
revive it. In a speech in January 2006 designed to set the tone of
the forthcoming campaign, Rove accused Democrats of having a
"pre-9/11 worldview." But the strategy he employed in 2004 was
already obsolete.

In the 2006 election, the Democrats didn't merely win back Congress
(a success that Rove could conceivably have blamed on the
corruption of Tom DeLay et al. and the malfeasance of Mark Foley);
they won back 321 state legislative seats, indicating a far deeper
resentment of the Bush administration and Republican governance.
Clearly, Rove had not created the kind of majority that Franklin D.
Roosevelt and the Democrats had created in 1932 and 1936. At best,
U.S. politics had returned to what political scientist Walter Dean
Burnham called an "unstable equilibrium." At worst, it was headed
toward a Democratic majority. And Karl Rove was headed back to
Texas, where he can go dove-hunting with his old pal Phil Gramm.

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