I guess this makes Joshua Green’s article in the September Atlantic, a look at what went wrong with “The Rove Presidency,” even more timely. (The same issue also includes Matthew Scully’s much discussed debunking of the myths surrounding his fellow Bush speechwriter,Michael Gerson. It’s well worth picking up.) Green attributes much of the Karl Rove mystique to a media-manufactured Cult of the Consultant. If anything, Green doesn’t go far enough: far from being a “genius,” is Rove even competent? To say he’s better than Bob Shrum ain’t saying much.
Green outlines five projects that Rove wanted to use to force a political realignment: No Child Left Behind, Social Security semiprivatization, immigration reform (with an emphasis on amnesty for illegals), and the faith-based initiatives. These were all meant to slice up the electorate, building up Republicans’ demographics — investors, churches — and whittling away at the Democrats’ support among minorities and the education bureaucracy. Of the five, Green says that only NCLB has succeeded. I was thinking that the faith-based initiatives had also succeeded in their objective of funneling taxpayer dollars into Republican churches, but this Washington Post article reports that liberal churches have actually applied for and received more grants — so unless Rove was out to build up the Religious Left, this program too is a tactical failure.
What are Rove’s actual achievements in national politics? He failed to win over a majority of voters to the Bush cause in 2000, despite the country’s eagerness for something fresh after eight years of Clinton. (Clinton was popular, yes, but unless I very much misremember, even liberals thought it was time for a change — hence the Nader boomlet of that year.) Various civic-minded lefties have tried to argue that Rove is some kind of mastermind for campaigning not to win 60% of the vote, but just 50% plus one, but this is a tactic that even a novice campaign “expert” tends to use. (And as we saw in 2000, it nearly backfired, resulting in a statistical draw. It’s silly to aim for 60% of the vote in a contested presidential election, but it’s a good idea to win by a large enough margin to quash any temptation the other side might have to demand recounts, yes?) The Bush administration had some success with bipartisanship in getting NCLB through Congress, something for which “moderates” might give Rove and Bush credit but for which conservatives certainly should not. Other than that, before 9/11 the Bush administration was mired in mediocrity — Enron, a stem-cell “compromise” that betrayed pro-lifers without actually giving scientific researchers what they wanted, etc.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the 50% plus 1 strategy also backfired in the Senate, where the razor-thin Republican majority was undone by Jim Jeffords’ defection.
9/11 and war, war, war gave Rove several years’ worth of cover. Republicans seized the opportunity to burnish their image as the party of “patriotism,” and the Democrats capitulated all the way. Nobody was surprised by the GOP gains in the 2002 midterms — how could it have been otherwise? During the ’04 campaign, the Iraq War was barely a year old, and although things were already going south (in Afghanistan, too), the public was still high on the whirlwind victory of the previous year. Howard Dean was willing to resist the Republicans, but Kerry wasn’t, and he won the nomination. An incumbent “war president” vs. a me-too Democrat — again, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Bush won handily. Did it take an electoral genius to pull that off? Not hardly. Rove and his sycophants tried to pump up the import of the victory by pointing to all the counties Bush won — many of them populated by more cows than people — and to the fact that Bush received more votes than any other candidate in American history. Which was true, but only because of population growth. His percentage win over Kerry wasn’t impressive, and Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton had all won the electoral college by larger margins in their second-term races. In other words, Bush had the closest successful re-election of any incumbent since the reviled Harry Truman. Considering how overwhelmingly favorable the electoral climate at the time was for Republicans, this is not an indication of Rovean genius. Again, I ask, is he even comptent?
That anemic 2004 Bush performance perhaps adds a data point to another phenomenon: the possibility of a realignment, all right, but towards the Democrats, not the Republicans. The Republicans had briefly achieved parity with the Democrats in party identification, but that’s over now, and the Democrats once again have the upper hand. Rove — we can blame him directly for this, just look back at those five initiatives Green outlines — has not added to the Republican coalition, just the opposite: he has splintered the conservative movement and undermined the GOP. Thanks in large part to Rove and Bush, social voters and economic conservatives have grown more resentful of one another and immigration restrictionists have been alienated from the party (without the GOP picking up any reliable Latino votes). Rove has successfully hammered the wedges of open-borders and big government into his own party! If Rove is a genius, he must be working for the other side.