by Jeremy Young | 8/30/2009 11:44:00 AM
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." -- Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects

The greatest trick Karl Rove ever pulled was convincing the world he was the Devil.

The real Karl Rove was a political strategist of decidedly ordinary ability. I'll never dispute his ruthlessness, but it's equally indisputable that not a single one of his masterstrokes achieved any tangible results.

Let's look at the record. Rove first appeared on the national stage as the political genius behind George Bush in roughly 1999. Rove attempted to sell Bush as the inevitable frontrunner for the Republican nomination. However, Bush came shockingly close to losing to an upstart Senator named John McCain who had barely any name recognition and next to no money, and whose own home-state Governor had endorsed Bush. Bush eventually defeated McCain on the strength of his fundraising ability and the connections he had inherited from his father, things Rove had nothing to do with.

Bush then barely triumphed over Al Gore in one of the closest elections in history, again because of his superiority in fundraising and because his opponent ran one of the most dysfunctional campaigns of all time. Rove had little to do with any of this.

In 2004, Bush defeated another lackluster Democratic candidate, John Kerry, partially because of a wickedly effective dirty trick, the campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. However, this campaign was run by a group of people who had nothing to do with Rove and whose leader, Jerome Corsi, was a member of the far-right Constitution Party and didn't answer to Rove in any way. Bush's most successful Rovian trick therefore had nothing to do with Rove at all.

Rove had some involvement with the Valerie Plame affair, in which the Bush administration attempted to shut up a low-ranking foreign service official whom no one was paying attention to by outing his wife as a CIA agent. Rove's plan backfired in his face, turned Joe Wilson into a national celebrity, gave him a perfect platform from which to launch further critiques of the Iraq War, and made Rove look like a grade-A jackass. Epic fail in the evil genius category.

Rove's most important secret plan was to maintain perpetual Republican control of Congress by pushing politically-motivated prosecutions of Democratic elected officials by the Justice Department. This plan was a tremendous failure that not only resulted in an expose that took down the Attorney General of the United States, but it also achieved not a single electoral victory for Republicans. Let's examine two cases in particular.

In New Mexico, Rove wanted U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to indict Patsy Madrid before she defeated Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Rove's strategy was to fire Iglesias when he refused to comply and replace him with a supportive political appointee. However, that process took several years and was woefully inadequate in discrediting Patsy Madrid in 2006 (Heather Wilson defeated her anyway). Not only was Madrid not indicted by Rove's flunkie in 2006, she still has not been indicted by that same U.S. attorney in 2009, though signs indicate that she soon will be. Had Madrid won the election in 2006, then, it would have taken Rove at least three years to have her removed from office through his master plan.

In what is generally considered Rove's most successful political prosecution, he railroaded former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman into federal prison on trumped-up corruption charges. However, Siegelman had already lost reelection when he was indicted, and there is no indication that he would have regained his seat in a rematch. What Rove did is to railroad a washed-up former elected official who had little chance of ever again holding public office.

Meanwhile, the one politician who was successfully run out of office on politically-motivated charges by a U.S. Attorney on Rove's watch was -- a Republican, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. So much for Rove's master plan.

The record shows that Karl Rove was a decidedly average, possibly well below average, political strategist. But Rove did one thing extraordinarily well: he made Democrats believe that he was a great strategist. He did more than that: he made them believe that he was invincible.

Look at this January 2003 article by Ron Suskind, a piece that played no small part in the making of the Rove mythos. It illustrates from first to last how Rove did it, how he created the image of himself as an unbeatable evil genius. There's Rove shouting at an aide, "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!" -- then flashing a smile and telling the reporter, "Come on in!" There's Rove telling all his friends from way back that he wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna, the greatest of the great evil strategists. There's John McCain telling Suskind that in Rove's absence, most people assumed, "Oh, he's out ruining careers." There's John Weaver, Rove's arch-nemesis in the Republican Party, spreading vague and disturbing rumors of a falling-out between himself and Rove back in the eighties. The best line comes from a White House insider just after the 2002 elections, when the Republicans picked up seats. "It’s unbelievable," says the source. "Could Karl be that smart? Could anyone?"

So there is the myth, and it's a doozy; but there too is the record, and it's pretty lackluster. Do you see the disconnect between them? This is what we historians do: we find a disconnect, a gap, a mistake, something that shouldn't be there but is, and explain it. The explanation for this one is clear. This is a man who spent his entire career making people think he was a monster, for good and all. Karl Rove is extraordinarily good at only one thing: spinning a story that instills irrational fear in others. In another life, he would have made a fine horror novelist: the the dark fantastic creatures that devour children in their beds at night are at home in his fevered mind. As a political strategist, he was no great shakes. But as a character out of his own terrifying imagination, he was a superstar. He had Democrats running around in circles for years, afraid of their own shadows, looking over their shoulders for fear that Karl Rove might be standing behind them. No plan was so good that Rove could not foil it; no plot was so secure that Rove could not divine it; no victory was so assured that Rove could not turn it into defeat. It was all poppycock of course, but in politics perception was reality, and that was the perception. Rove won elections not because he was a good strategist, but because he gave birth to today's weak-kneed Democratic political class.

Karl Rove indeed deserves a place in the pantheon of great American evil strategists, with the likes of Mark Hanna and Lee Atwater. Rove defeated Democrats not by out-organizing them as Hanna did, or by out-sliming them as Atwater did, but by convincing them he was the Devil. He then sat back and watched as they defeated themselves. In a way, Rove was the most insidious evil strategist of them all.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/30/2009 3:02 PM:

Hmmm. I think this understates the importance of Fox and the degree to which Rove both enabled and benefited from the right-wing shift in media.

I think you're right that Rove's "genius" was overstated (just the fact that he picked George instead of Neil tells you most of what you need to know) and that structural and marginal issues played a big role. On the other hand, the Bush campaigns were not error-prone and lackluster (as both the Gore and Kerry campaigns were) and the habits created over the last three elections are undeniably going to affect the future of national and local politics.

So I don't think he's quite as ignorable as all that.


Anonymous Just an ordinary historian on 8/30/2009 3:27 PM:

I’m not convinced that what you describe captures the Rove effect. Certainly, there was a mystique that surrounded him. We know how he was perceived. He rose to prominence at a time when political consultants had emerged from the shadows that had enveloped people such as Murray Chotiner in the 1950s to become media figures in their own right (Carville is an example on the Democratic side). Even so, it’s hard to tell what lay behind some of his public statements. His famous prediction that “the numbers” showed Republicans holding on to both houses of Congress in 2006 may simply have been a bluff. He may or may not have known, but been unable to say publicly, that data suggested otherwise.

Karl Rove started out as a Young Republican, one whose public face was as the director of college outreach efforts for the Nixon Committee to Re-elect the President. (You’ve probably seen the video clip of him being interviewed for a report by Dan Rather for CBS in 1972.) One of his mentors reportedly was Donald Segretti, known for his role in dirty tricks on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort.

By the time Rove came to be associated with George W. Bush, he had developed a reputation as a direct mail expert and political consultant who studied polling, demographic, and geographic data at a very granular level. He also came to be associated with the 50 plus 1 theory. The GOP used a very sophisticated approach to turn-out-the-vote efforts in 2000 and 2004. Consultants examined not just demographic data but what magazines people read, what tv shows they watched, and predicted from that how they might vote. PBS’ Frontline show examined this process in 2005 on a show, “How Karl Rove Targeted the Republican Vote.”
The Democrats didn’t catch up until 2008, when Barack Obama benefited from a very effective data analysis and implementation effort by his own team in the primaries and the general election.

It was Rove’s perceived ability to analyze data and figure out how to push the buttons to get that needed 51% of the vote that shaped his image more so than his deciding to market himself as a devilish force. That Rove’s effort did not have a long term payoff is due to many factors, including public fatigue with the Iraq war, the lessening of the 9/11 effect, a feeling among some citizens, especially after Katrina, of not wanting to feel so polarized and divided. And for some, perhaps a tiring of reacting to negative rather than positive motivators. One of the more thoughtful of Bush’s former aides recently argued that the scolding tone of the religious right and the divisive quality of the populist appeal (praising “real” Americans and putting down urban voters) hurt the party over the course of Bush’s two terms. Times change, public moods change. In 2008, Obama captured the zeitgeist better than his opponents did.

That Bush’s 2000 and 2004 efforts benefited from scare tactics and fear mongering and even dirty tricks – such as the implication in 2000 that John McCain had an illegitimate mixed race child -- is clear. Some of this has come to be called Rovian, but how much of that is due to Rove’s guidance will be difficult for historians to ascertain. While Rove’s records as a White House official fall under federal statutes, records of his purely political activities do not. As with many political consultants, many details of what he did on the purely political side may remain obscure due to the lack of a paper trail. As you point out, some parts of his role in some governmental matters are becoming known.


Anonymous Just an historian on 8/30/2009 6:48 PM:

A postscript to my earlier comment above. Data analysis and crafting an approach that pushes the buttons of key voting blocs is not inherently evil. It can and has won elections in the past. If the off-year election were being held in two months, instead of in November 2010, the Democrats might well lose seats in both houses. The most energized group right now is older white Americans, a group which leans Republican. The least energized group is young people (the 18 to 29 year olds), the segment that went most enthusiastically Democratic in 200. The healthcare issue is very complicated and has proven difficult for the President and his supporters to distill into digestible and acceptable bites. That cost controls and universality of coverage both are in the mix makes it challenging to sell reform initiatives to different demographic groups.

Young people seem largely to have tuned out of the debate, they don't have deep roots in civic engagtement and don't seem to be reacting much to what is going on in the townhalls. Many seniors hear cost control and think "less or poorer care for me." The fear that type of thinking triggers is a powerful motivator -- and motivated people come out and vote. It's not enough to craft initiatives, you have to anticipate the pushback and be prepared to counter it. Rove undoubtedly understands this.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/31/2009 11:14 AM:

JAOH, I don't think Rove met the standard you lay out for him. Instead of getting the needed 51%, it often seemed as if he took runaway winners and knocked them down to 51% by his ineptitude. Bush getting only 48% against a train wreck like Al Gore? Coming close to losing to an underfunded upstart like McCain? These are not things people like Mark Hanna or Lee Atwater would have done.

Ahist, you're right that Fox and friends played a large role in the rise of Rove's candidates. To some degree he was the beneficiary of circumstances. Still, it's interesting to compare his reputation with that of the man I consider the greatest political organizer of his generation: David Plouffe. Plouffe created an astonishingly effective campaign and is little-recognized for it. Rove limped along through two elections and is a legend. That's the point I'm trying to make.


Anonymous Stefan Forbes on 8/31/2009 3:00 PM:

Fascinating debate here. Having interviewed many Republican operatives about this stuff, we've got a treasure trove of related information about the Lee Atwater playbook on our website (below).

Atwater's friends feel that he was by far the superior strategist, and that Rove was largely following his playbook. I would also point people to our Murrow Award-winning film Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which provides an in-depth analysis of Atwater's legacy, and analyzes the seminal 1973 Atwater/Rove campaign for control of the College Republicans.

Over 80 universities are using Boogie Man in their American History and Poli Sci departments. You can watch trailers and excerpts here:


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/31/2009 3:02 PM:

Excellent! Sounds like it's worth checking out.


Blogger nickname on 8/31/2009 5:40 PM:

Karl Rove proved his worth to the Bush campaign by the masterful way in which he handled the rumors and allegations about GW's use of cocaine, his military "record", the charges that he impregnated a young woman who subsequently got an abortion, the automobile accident in which his wife ran into the car being driven by her
boyfriend - who was killed instantly etc.


Anonymous Just an ordinary historian on 8/31/2009 6:45 PM:

What I find most striking about Atwater is what he said shortly before he died:

"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."

Not a message that would resonate with many in the political world, but interesting that he came to see things that way.


Anonymous Just an ordinary historian on 9/01/2009 6:25 AM:

Interesting to hear that Atwater's friends believe Rove largely was following his playbook. Although hardly unbiased observers, their assessment may well largely be correct. If a playbook worked previously, why not adapt it to future election?

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland provides an interesting account of the dirty tricks that Donald Segretti and his operatives used agains the Democrats during the run-up to the 1972 election. If the account is accurate -- and I have no reason to think it is not -- the ensuing chaos during the primary season is quite mind boggling. The forged "Canuck letter" which led to the famous "tears in the snow" speech by Edmund Muskie is the best known dirty trick.

According to Perlstein, Segretti first tried to recruit lawyers to work on his efforts, then turned to Young Republicans, a group he describes as not unfamiliar with chicanery in their own internal jockeying for position. Rove emerged from the Nixon era Young Republicans. As I mentioned earlier, Segretti reportedly was one of Rove's mentors during this time period.

What is interesting about Rove is the way he came to loom so large, especially in Bush's first term. Whether this was due to marketing of his image or to other factors is hard to ascertain. Part of being a consultant lies in building up a mystique, establishing a brand. That some Democrats reacted as they did to Rove may have had as much to do with reaching for an excuse as to why they did not prevail against Bush -- a candidate some of them viewed as less than impressive -- in two elections as anything else. (Some observers pointed to Clinton fatigue as being a factor in Gore's 2000 loss, others have argued that he should not have kept Clinton at arms length during the campaign.) There often is a sense of "how could they elect him over our guy" after an election loss. From the losing side, it isn't always easy to see (or acknowledge) what the public saw in the winning candidate. Easier to blame a Rove type figure than to figure out the complex and often hard to suss out reasons for public rejection of a candidate and party. Especially among an electorate nearly evenly split among conservatives, liberals, and moderates, not all of whom identify firmly and consistently with a single party. In 2004 the Republican and Democratic identification numbers among those who went to the polls were nearly even, in 2008, much less so. Hard to say how that will play out in the future.


Anonymous Anonymous on 9/01/2009 8:00 AM:

The term “permanent campaign” first came to be used during the Clinton administration but there always has been a strong political calculus in much of what Presidents do. But what works in one area can backfire in another. Most historians believe that the dirty tricks that came to be associated with Nixon fit with the President’s inclination to “use any means” against opponents, as he often put it. A President who sat and discussed the bombing of the Brookings Institute clearly believed in using all the tools at his disposal, even if he didn’t always follow through. The extent to which Rove’s ethos aligned with George Bush’s is not nearly so clear, however. There well may have been things associated with Bush or done in his name that the President did not directly sanction or with which he did not feel comfortable when he found out about them. (Recent reports suggest that the “Scooter” Libby case appears to be an area in which Bush decided the former aide had lied under oath and that such actions did not warrant a pardon, despite Cheney’s insistent importuning.)

For me the most interesting thing about relying on consultants such as Atwater and Rove and Carville and Begala lies in what happens once a President is in office, when a campaign ethos may collide with what is required for “good government.” . What happens when you bring in a political consultant to head a political office within the White House, as George Bush did with Rove? That was unusual, since consultants (Begala, Carville, Morris, Chotiner) usually stay off the government payroll although they often continue to offer advice from outside. That is not to say that bringing someone with political expertise inside the governmental fold can’t work – it can, if they adapt to and respect governmental codes of conduct. If they instead continue to apply political and purely expedient standards of conduct, it can hurt an administration.

Clinton’s aides were able to contain the so-called “bimbo eruptions” while he was Governor but Carl Bernstein has suggested in his book that a stonewalling stance later backfired when he was President. Had he settled the Paula Jones case early on (as he ultimately did), Ken Starr might never have uncovered the Lewinsky matter.

There’s an “end justifies the means” quality to some aspects of campaigning that doesn’t always align with the statutory prohibitions, regulatory restrictions and requirements and codes of conduct in government. The “anything goes” ethos of campaigning also can create inner tension within an administration when a party tries to appeal to so-called values voters by criticizing moral relativism and situational ethics.


Anonymous RaptureForums on 9/02/2009 12:16 AM:

Rove wasn't as bad as they painted him. JMHO.


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