Karl Rove leaves Washington with mountainous political and strategic achievements, and yet empty-handed. His great dream of changing the political geography forever is unrealized. If most presidents come to Washington to govern within the framework of their political ideology, Rove hoped that his man would go way beyond that and permanently change the political landscape, ushering in a new era of lasting conservatism. Rove is a visionary and in the early days of the Bush ascendancy–something he engineered almost single-handedly–it appeared he might triumph.
Rove’s vision is as formidable as is his campaign execution; and his comprehension of electoral architecture is without peer. Rove believes that elections are won by an intimate understanding of not just states, but counties and precincts. He also believes a little sugar helps the medicine go down. That was the case when he discovered conservatism was viewed as harsh and unfeeling. Rove reached for the sugar and gave us “compassionate conservatism.” It was an idea both vague and transcendental: a bromide that could be swallowed by both the masses and the high priests. In the beginning, and the end, it was a hoax. But it was one that candidate George W. Bush could believe in, and it sped him on to the presidency.
Rove, an adoptive Texan, needed both shock troops and a Praetorian guard to advance his agenda. They were the Christian right and the graduates of the organization he had once run, College Republicans. The religious right was hand-fed by Rove, who spent enormous effort nurturing them and promising them Old Testament red meat. The new president would give them what they wanted, so much as he could: conservative judges, opposition to Roe v. Wade, limits on stem cell research, school prayer and school choice, and family friendly taxes. For their part, the conservative churches had to get out the vote and preach against the sinful liberals. The College Republicans Rove held close. He found jobs for them in the administration, the White House, and as lobbyists. Key figures like his old friend Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, were bolstered. They were encouraged to emphasize their links to Rove. The Christian right was the brawn and the College Republicans were the brains.
Rove’s Bush strategy did not produce a sweeping victory for Bush, but a messy conclusion in Florida. However, it was a victory for Rove. When Karl the Kingmaker was moved in to the White House by his friend, now grateful friend, George W. Bush, he arrived as the third most important person in the West Wing after the vice president. The chief of staff, Andrew Card, ranked Rove on paper. But Rove had the power, and he exercised it. He was the intellectual, the man with the charts and the power-point displays, and the quick historical references.
Before 9/11, Rove dabbled in foreign policy and even chaired a group on Iraq. But after the attacks another strain of the Republican activists, the so-called “neocons,” seized foreign policy and found a channel to Vice President Cheney. Rove, was now free to push the president’s agenda domestically. With one of his heroes in mind, William McKinley, Rove sought to bring about structural changes in policy that would turn America inexorably right. He failed.
Only two major pieces of the president’s domestic agenda were enacted in the first term: tax cuts and education reform. The faith-based initiative was watered down, Social Security reform was strangled at birth, immigration reform failed, and extending the tax cuts has not happened. Meanwhile the Republicans, especially conservatives, have lost faith in their White House team. Too many missteps; too many scandals or near scandals; and, hanging over everything, is Iraq.
In the end Rove, the political scientist and electoral engineer, failed in the politics of Capitol Hill. He is accused of being too dictatorial in dealing with members of his own party and too autodidactic with the opposition.
Rove, who admires Winston Churchill along with McKinley, missed Churchill’s respect for the House of Commons. Rove expected Republicans on the Hill to sign on to legislation because it furthered The Great Cause. Lawmakers did not like his style: Although they admired what he had achieved, they resented his lack of deference. Even Tom DeLay had screaming matches with Rove, by the former House speaker’s own report.
It has been a helluva ride, Karl.