Don’t Blame Rove

Even his enemies say the GOP would have done worse without him.

In the wake of their Tuesday catastrophe, angry conservatives are pointing fingers in every direction. They blame corrupt congressmen, terrible Donald Rumsfeld, the stumbling president, their disaffected rank and file. They blame social conservatives, neoconservatives, moderate conservatives, and big-government conservatives.

But are they blaming “the architect”? I wondered how Karl Rove’s reputation withstood the Tuesday thumping. Are Republicans holding their top political strategist responsible for the midterm fiasco?

It turns out there are plenty of reasons to blame Rove if you’re of a mind to. Here are a few:

1. After the national horror of 9/11, Rove chose to please the president’s conservative base rather than seize the historic moment of national unity by pushing a more moderate set of policies. This inevitably alienated independent voters. Rove thought they wouldn’t penalize Republicans at the polls. They did.

2. It was Rove’s idea to push for Social Security reform after the 2004 election. He kept pushing it long after voters had told pollsters they didn’t want it. He wildly misread the national mood, woke up the left, and saddled Republicans in Congress with a loser issue. Then, he pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, angering a different portion of the base.

3. He and Bush delayed announcing Rumsfeld’s departure. Had Rumsfeld left two months ago, you can bet George Allen and Conrad Burns wouldn’t be planning their retirement parties.

There are lots of people in Washington whom Rove has intimidated or bullied. Some are Bush allies, and some are his former colleagues. Since he got the credit for Bush’s victories, they think it’s only fair that he take the blame for the GOP defeat.

But when I went looking for what I expected to be a massive orgy of Rove schadenfreude, I actually found that, for the most part, Republicans were defending him.

They started by arguing that the election could have been a lot worse. Conditions really called for a 35- to 45-seat loss in the House. Rove and Ken Mehlman built a ground operation over the last seven years that limited the losses. They knew where to drop all the cash they’d raised and how to micro-target voters. I find this silly. No one praises football coaches for losing by five touchdowns instead of six.

More plausible is the claim that much of what flipped the election was beyond Rove’s control. He couldn’t reverse the violence on the ground in Iraq. Could he have pushed Bush to drop Rumsfeld earlier? Maybe, if he’d made that case a year ago, but dropping Rumsfeld too close to the election would have looked desperate and would have enraged the Rummy-loving conservatives.

But the most persuasive argument of Rove’s defenders is that congressional Republicans deserve the blame for Tuesday’s outcome. What sapped the energy and enthusiasm of the base were Congress’ ethical lapses (culminating in the Foley fiasco), excessive spending, and addiction to earmarks. Rove allies are quick to point to exit polls showing that people mentioned “corruption” as their top concern when voting (but remember, Jack Abramoff visited the White House, too).

Of course, some Rove defenders are speaking up for self-interested reasons. He’s still powerful. He retains his White House office, which will allow him to take care of those politicians who lost (or not take care of them, if the losers don’t behave). There are still commissions and ambassadorships and corporate boards that Rove can pack with Tuesday’s losers. Even if Rove leaves Washington tomorrow, he’ll remain a leading light of the conservative movement for the unapologetic, even brutal, way he fights for conservative ideas.

The GOP has a history of turning defeated luminaries into folk heroes. Though Newt Gingrich was largely to blame for the GOP’s poor performance in 1998, he is widely beloved by Republicans. Nixon retained a core group of followers even after resignation. One difference: It took time for Nixon and Gingrich to regain their stature. Rove won’t need to wait.