The Big Idea

Karl’s Marks

Will Rove pass his midterms?

Is Karl Rove the great mastermind of American politics? Everyone seems to think so. George W. Bush’s nicknames for him include “The Architect” and “Boy Genius.” Other Republicans see Rove as a shaman who can conjure victory out of the air—and Democrats agree. (They would rather think they’ve been losing to a nefarious wizard than to a lazy moron.) The political press, always more comfortable with personality than ideology, cottons readily to the myth that the country is run by an elusive puppeteer.

Let me concede that Rove is a detail-minded, relentless, and methodical political operator with unusual skill at networking and organization-building. He is also, clearly, a strategic and historical thinker. The conventional assumption has long been that elections are fought in the center and that whoever can claim the lion’s share of persuadable voters wins. But after Bush took office in 2001, Rove stood that too-obvious notion on its head, rejecting the pursuit of moderation and swing votes in favor of a deliver-the-base plan. Boiled down to a single hypothesis, Roveism says that Republicans can win without fighting for the center by mobilizing and motivating their core supporters. And the 2004 election seemed to prove that theory right.

But with the conservative edifice groaning and shifting, there are at least some grounds for skepticism about the architect’s brilliance. While Rove boasts an impressive winning streak, the largest part of his success is arguably due to luck and circumstances beyond his control. By rights, Bush should have lost the presidency in 2000. He got fewer popular votes than Al Gore, and would have had fewer in the Electoral College but for poor ballot design in Florida. In the closing days of the campaign, Rove sent Bush to California, a state he couldn’t possibly win, in an attempt to telegraph “confidence.” If the official count in Florida had more closely reflected voter preferences, this tactical blunder would have made Rove the laughingstock of American politics instead of the genius. Rove’s early White House performance didn’t indicate much in the way of brilliance, either. He managed to lose control of the Senate for his side without an election, when a neglected Republican moderate, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, quit the GOP.

Nor was I entirely persuaded of Rove’s genius in 2002 or 2004. Presidents usually lose congressional ground in their first midterm elections, a rule that Bush defied in 2002 by picking up eight seats in the House and two in the Senate. But that was low-hanging fruit. Bush still wore his Sept. 11 halo, the glow enhanced by a successful takedown of the Taliban in Afghanistan and not yet diminished by the debacle in Iraq. Rove followed that victory with what was becoming his traditional post-victory miscalculation, pushing Congressional Republicans to back a massive expansion of liberal government in the form of a Medicare prescription drug benefit. This program, which angered core conservatives without gaining ground among the elderly, was a political as well as a substantive mistake.

Rove’s bolder thrust, on which his claim to history will probably rest, was his “base strategy” of 2004. In 2000, Rove had taken the conventional approach, casting Bush as a moderate “compassionate conservative”—a job made easier by Gore’s leftward tilt. In 2004, Rove changed the game and ran right, focusing on the GOP’s religious base. This time Bush won legitimately, but still very narrowly, and again with the benefit of an unloved opponent and an inept Democratic campaign. There are no controlled experiments in political science and thus no way to know for certain whether moderation would have lost Bush the election or returned him to the White House by a safer margin (and better positioned the GOP for elections to come). But the fact that Bush won doesn’t prove that Rove’s strategy was correct. And we do know that Rove was incorrect when he followed his latest close shave with his biggest victory-lap blunder yet, by making partial privatization of Social Security the centerpiece of Bush’s second term. This boneheaded move helped push Bush’s popularity to historic lows and set him up as a lame duck on domestic and economic policy for his entire second term. 

The case that Rove is indeed the political genius most politicos think he is finds its latest expression in an interesting new film and an excellent new book. The film, So Goes the Nation, focuses on how Rove’s theory was applied in the 2004 campaign in Ohio, where the presidential election was decided by 118,599 votes. Animated by liberal envy for the GOP’s crackerjack operation, the filmmakers show us what Rove’s phone banks, his church canvassing operation, and his motivated “base” actually looked like. In its modest way, this grass-roots machinery is awfully impressive. In The Way to Win, a new book that anyone seriously interested in the mechanics of contemporary politics ought to read, Mark Halperin and John Harris explain Rove’s techniques in admiring detail. Halperin thinks that Rove’s Ohio-winning formula—defining the election around a conservative/liberal choice on issues including security and gay marriage—has life in it yet.

My skeptic’s reaction is that we’ve not yet had a true test of Roveism—one that tells us whether the theory can deliver for Republicans in less propitious circumstances and without a blundering Democratic opponent. But on Nov. 7, we are finally going to have that test. External conditions for Republicans—the war in Iraq, anemic job creation and middle-class wage growth, high gas prices, the Abramoff lobbying scandal, the Foley page scandal—are terrible. And because it’s a midterm, there is no single Democratic opponent whom Rove can define as a flip-flopping traitor. The latest poll numbers point to a debacle for the GOP. In weathervane Ohio, Republicans are already writing off their incumbent, Sen. Mike DeWine, as a lost cause.

We shall see. If the GOP manages to keep control of both houses this time, the presidential architect will be vindicated once and for all. It will be time for Democrats to head home, hang up their spikes, and await word of his retirement. Even I, possibly the last Rove skeptic, will be ready to concede that George W. Bush has an amazing brain—worn on the outside of his head.