Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Karl Rove: Daedalus or Icarus?

Joshua Green has written an insightful appraisal of the work of political strategist Karl Rove for the latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly. The portrait drawn by Green is both disturbing and illuminating. Karl Rove is many things to many people, but analyzing his resume, two things stand out: On the one hand he is a masterful political strategist with an impressive record of electoral success, sometimes in very unlikely settings. The flip side of that coin is the fact that Karl Rove might be the most underhanded and downright dirty political operative of the modern era.

The two most immediate examples of Rove's success are: First, the narrow defeat of Al Gore, the vice president of a popular incumbent president, by George W. Bush, a relatively inexperienced Governor from Texas who did have the advantage of almost universal name recognition. Second, the impressive gains made by Republicans in the Congressional midterm elections.

Rove began receiving national attention on a much smaller stage, though, and one in which he faced daunting odds - and triumphed.

In 1994 a group called the Business Council of Alabama appealed to Rove to help run a slate of Republican candidates for the state supreme court. This would not have seemed a plum assignment to most consultants. No Republican had been elected to that court in more than a century. But the council was hopeful, in large part because Rove had faced precisely this scenario in Texas several years before, and had managed to get elected, in rapid succession, a Republican chief justice and a number of associate justices, and was well on his way to turning an all-Democratic court all Republican. Rove took the job.
The results were overwhelming. Rove went on to transform, the political climate for the judiciary in Alabama as he had done in Texas. He, almost singlehandedly, reversed over a century of intractable political realities in less than a decade. As a testament to the totality of Rove's success, Green notes:

Earlier this year the lone Democrat on the Alabama Supreme Court announced his retirement. There's an excellent chance that on Election Day the court will at last become entirely Republican.
Other examples of Rove's electoral achievements abound.

So what makes Karl Rove so good, or bad, depending on your perspective? The answer is multifaceted, as Rove possesses many talents: some unique, some mundane and some of a more dubious ethical nature. But all of them are encompassed in one package, which makes him a formidable figure and a worthy adversary to any politician unlucky enough to find him or herself in his sights.

First, I will focus on Rove's less controversial attributes. It has been noted by Green and others that many of Rove's tendencies were informed by his early days as a direct mail campaigner and fund raiser. That experience has imbued in him an instinctual feel for voter tendencies and motivations and a system and strategy for compartmentalizing marketing to specific groups and demographics. To this, Rove adds a well studied knowledge of language and how to frame the issues to corner the debate, a careful attention to detail, a dedication to efficiency of operations, and a solid underlying strategic foundation - he has been known to quote Napoleon in staff memos saying, "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack." Anyone who has paid attention to Rove run campaigns recognizes the tactics of Bonaparte.

Rove's tenure as a direct mail campaigner has taught him how to compile and read demographic data, and given him an appreciation for the details within the data. It also provided an understanding of the limitations of marketing and how to gauge the efficacy of various aspects.

According to Karl Rove & Co. data on the 1994 Texas governor's race, Rove was aware, for instance, that households that received a single piece of mail turned out for Bush at a rate of 15.45 percent, and those that received three pieces at a rate of 50.83 percent. Turnout peaked at seven pieces (57.88 percent), after which enthusiasm for Bush presumably gave way to feelings of inundation, and support began to drop.
For Rove, attention to detail is all important, and the routine is the same: identify a demographic that can be won over, target the marketing expenditures to reach that group, and frame the message to make it most appealing to the intended audience.

Identify the target audience:

Rove would typically begin a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral history of a particular office, charting where votes for each candidate had originated and which groups had supplied them. In the 1980s these data led Rove to conclude that his candidates ought to target "ticket-splitters" - Texans who supported Ronald Reagan for President but voted Democratic in downballot races.
Focus the marketing efforts:

As with direct mail, Rove was skilled at reaching specific voter segments with television commercials, buying air time only during programs that he believed would attract the audience he was trying to reach. In his Alabama races he was known particularly to withhold advertising from The Oprah Winfrey Show and similar afternoon programming - "trimming a media buy," as it is known in the trade. Bill Smith, who worked on a series of close races with Rove in Alabama, says, "There's a real overlap in what he specialized in professionally and what you need to do in a tight race." Whether he is seeking donors in a direct-mail fundraising campaign or manipulating a particular demographic sliver to win a close race, Rove's professional goal has been strikingly consistent: to reach the right people.
Frame the debate:

"Throughout his career Rove has been able to stage-manage races to an extraordinary degree. This is possibly his least appreciated skill." The way that Rove determines the dynamic in a given race is through controlling the terms of the debate. By
framing the terms, he makes his opponents' positions seem indefensible, while his candidates come across as the only reasonable choice. Furthermore, as a truly skilled framer, he can turn one phrase into coded language that means different things to different groups - thus appealing to them all without unnecessarily alienating potential supporters. In this sense, Rove has been practicing what George Lakoff has been preaching.

Among Rove's other innovations was a savvy use of language, developed for speaking to the conservative base about judicial races. Candidates were to attack "liberal activist judges" and to present themselves as "people who will strictly interpret the law and not rewrite it from the bench." A former Rove staffer explained to me that the term "activist judges" motivates all sorts of people for very different reasons. If you're a religious conservative, he said, it means judges who established abortion rights or who interpret Massachusetts's equal-protection clause as applying to gays. If you're a business conservative, it means those who allow exorbitant jury awards. And in Alabama especially, the term conjures up those who forced integration. "The attraction of calling yourself a 'strict constructionist,'" as Rove's candidates did, this staffer explained, "is that you can attract business conservatives, social conservatives, and moderates who simply want a reasonable standard of justice."
I will address Karl Rove's more ethically suspect talents in a subsequent post, but before I do, I want to highlight some weaknesses in Rove's approach that may provide an infusion of hope for Kerry supporters, especially after the litany of Rovian skills that I just provided. His weaknesses fall into two categories: logistical and strategic.

Logistically speaking, the political terrain of the current presidential election is less advantageous than what Rove is used to, at least up until this point.

If there is any compelling reason to think that Rove may be out of his depth in this election, it is an odd lacuna in his storied career: no one I spoke with could recall his ever having to run an incumbent in a tough re-election race. This is partly a by-product of his dominance.
It is partly a result of Rove's dominance, and partly a result of the political realities of a national election at this moment in history. Whereas most of Rove's success stories have been in regions of the country that were already converting to a more conservative mindset (Texas and Alabama), this election is on a national stage with two sides that are firmly entrenched ideologically.

Democrats who want to feel sanguine about the coming election might well find comfort in the particulars of Rove's career. Several of his usual advantages are lacking this time around, conspicuously in geography. As a direct-mail consultant, Rove worked for races across the country, in blue states as well as red. The nature of that work mostly entailed identifying conservatives and motivating them to donate money - a fine skill for one in his current position as Bush's chief strategist, but not the equivalent of running a campaign. Rove compiled his stellar record in Texas and Alabama - and, of course, in the 2000 presidential election, even if his candidate lost the popular vote. During the period in which he rose to power, both states, deeply conservative, were transitioning from a firmly Democratic electorate to a firmly Republican one. A charge frequently levied against Rove by beleaguered Democratic consultants in Texas and Alabama is that he merely "surfed the wave" of the demographic change. This ignores his political talent. It's true, though, that for most of his career Rove has enjoyed a kind of home-field advantage, and in this election he does not.
Another aspect of the race that has run counter to the Rove-doctrine has been Kerry's unexpected ability to raise money, and the related involvement of left-leaning "527's" that have proved to be powerful and wealthy allies to the Kerry campaign.

Rove is also riding on less of a decisive financial advantage than the one he normally enjoys. In their book Bush's Brain, James Moore and Wayne Slater explain how Rove's success as a fundraiser provided the impetus for his move into political consulting, and how, once established in that capacity, he consolidated his power by controlling candidates' access to major donors, usually ensuring that his clients were better funded than their opponents. This enabled him to engage in what amounted to asymmetric warfare against anyone who challenged his candidates.
Whereas Rove had a decisive monetary edge over Gore in 2000, utilized to its full potential, Kerry has had the necessary resources to fight back when challenged, and make stronger plays at various target demographics. Rove is not accustomed to such financial parity, and has had to run flanking maneuvers at times in response.

The strategic weaknesses of Rove will be perhaps even more determinant of the outcome in November than the aforementioned logistical obstacles. Rove's strategy will be deemed either folly or brilliance depending on the final result, but the tack he has taken has drawn the ire and criticism of many, including members of his own party. His strategic failings, if that is indeed what they turn out to be, can be seen as two related shortcomings: First, an inflated sense of confidence based on a career of consistent success, and secondly, a myopic reliance on the lessons of those successes and an inability to adapt them to the current context.

As with all great minds, Rove also has big blind spots. Those have, perhaps, been exacerbated by his success as a certain intellectual complacency has settled in, reinforced by history.

A surprising number of Rove's former colleagues believe that his unprecedented success in Texas, where for years his candidates rarely faced serious challenges, has fostered what in the boxing world would be known as a "tomato-can" syndrome. Like a heavyweight champion who lets down his guard after beating up a series of hapless "tomato-can" opponents, Rove, they fear, may have been blinded to current national realities by hubris.
Whether born out of hubris, complacency, or just the astute perception of the winning strategy, there is no doubt that Rove is running on a different set of themes than in 2000.

While John Kerry's campaign has made an extraordinary effort to gather moderate voters to his liberal base by stressing its candidate's decorated war record and centrist views, Rove - in contrast to 2000's invitingly gauzy message of "compassionate conservatism" - has returned to his traditional strength: motivating the base of conservative voters.

Rather than soften Bush's appeal to reach moderates, Rove, as he has done throughout his career, is attempting to control the debate by expertly spotlighting issues sure to inspire his core constituency: the drive for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the pronouncements about love of country, the unremitting attack against anything in an opponent that seems impregnable. All these tactics stand out in Rove's most memorable past victories.
This move marks a part of a strategy that Rove has been espousing ever since the events of 9/11. The results have been mixed and the risks enormous. In this sense, Rove's post-9/11 approach marks his biggest gambit as a political operative.

In the months following the tragic events, the nation was unified unlike any time in history. Political divides were ignored, unity was valued at a premium, and bipartisanship ruled the day in the normally divisive world of politics. For a brief moment in time, George Bush seemed to grow into his campaign promise to be a uniter and a broacher of differences. He benefited greatly from the decision by the press corp, and the Democratic opposition, to abstain from criticizing his leadership. To do so, it was thought, would appear unpatriotic and shrill at a time when stability and togetherness were sacrosanct. With the invasion of Afghanistan raging half a world a way, there was a somewhat surreal pax-Americana in Washington. Having reaped the political capital of 9/11, and the subsequent events in Afghanistan, George Bush's re-election was a fait accompli.

A funny thing happened on the way to November 2, 2004, however, and for this Karl Rove's legacy will always be judged. Instead of expanding the mandate that Bush had achieved post-9/11, and ushering in an era of bipartisan support reminiscent of Reagan, which would have carried Bush to a landslide in 2004, Rove went for broke. Taking advantage of the nation's fears and insecurities, the GOP machine, with Rove at its helm, used 9/11 as a hammer to bludgeon foes in a most scurrilous fashion.

The saga of triple-amputee and Vietnam veteran Max Cleeland typifies the plight of Democrats during the interim elections and throughout many post-9/11 legislative battles. The patriotism of Cleeland, and other Democrats, was called into question - with one campaign advertisement juxtaposing his image with that of Bin Laden's in a not so subtle innuendo. Opponents of the Patriot Act were labeled terrorist accomplices. The Iraq war resolution was suspiciously timed to coincide with the run-up to the interim elections themselves, with its detractors painted as cowards, appeasers and reckless peaceniks. When the Iraq war began the GOP looked stronger than ever. Rove had begun to scorch the Earth in an all out effort to insure Republican dominance in Washington.

On the one hand he was successful, as the GOP picked up seats in the House and the Senate, tightening their grip on Congress. In doing so, however, Rove stomped all over the nascent bipartisanship that had begun to take root in Washington. Perhaps emboldened by these successes, Rove employed the same strategic outlook for Bush's re-election campaign. It is as if Rove interpreted the midterm elections as a sign that the country was experiencing a sea change, much as the electorate had in Texas and Alabama where he gamed the system so brilliantly. The landscape began to take on familiar dimensions for Rove, so he played it the only way he knew how: surfing the wave of the conservative revolution by extolling the virtues of the movement while leaving moderates and leftists to drown in his wake.

But this is where Rove overplayed his hand. The country was not going the way of Texas and Alabama. Quite the contrary, Rove's sharp turn to the right awoke the slumbering apathetic left. The Democratic party, at the urging of vocal leaders like Howard Dean, rediscovered its sense of purpose, and the grass roots support flourished. Instead of serving a coup de grace, Rove inadvertently gave rise to a level of activism that hasn't been witnessed since the 1960s. All of a sudden, what should have been a sure Bush landslide has turned into a fiercely contested toss up. The lost opportunity has not gone unnoticed.
Privately, Rove has been challenged and even denounced for his approach. A common refrain I heard from Republican consultants a few months ago was that his approach is foolish, because for the sake of an ideologically intense campaign, Rove is ceding to the Democrats the moderates Kerry is pursuing. And, these consultants fear, it puts Bush in jeopardy of seeing outside events decide the race.

"I think Karl's success in Texas is almost a hindrance," a veteran strategist who worked with him in that state told me. "The rest of the country doesn't emulate Texas in terms of voting behavior. But sometimes you see his southern roots in Texas and his experience in Alabama kind of overtake him, and he seems to think the United States is one big-ass Texas."

Several consultants pointed to the issue of gay marriage, which one described as a perfect Texas wedge issue because it would attract culturally conservative Democrats in the eastern part of the state - "the rednecks," as he put it - who are normally the key to winning statewide office. But he doubted that the issue would have the same effect in the less conservative battleground states that are expected to decide this election.
Whether Rove succeeds or not remains to be seen, but it is obvious that this has turned into a bigger fight than anyone would have foreseen in the months following September 11, 2001, at a time when Bush looked unbeatable. In a sense, the electoral cycle has come full circle, with prospects for a tightly contested election, potential legal battles, and a tempest of controversies emanating from stormy Florida. Like the mythical Daedalus, Rove has proven to be a master artisan, a crafter of political campaigns and electoral victories. But maybe he is like Icarus as well, flying too close to the sun in a bout of arrogance, engrossed in his own acumen, only to come crashing down to Earth in defeat. Only time will tell.

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