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The Base Politics of Karl Rove

August 14, 2007

In the wake of the resignation of Karl Rove, most media post-mortems of the architect of the Bush presidency describe his legacy as one of ultimate failure. That is, in the end Karl Rove fell short of his goal to secure a permanent Republican majority monopolizing all three branches of government for the next generation. Instead, he leaves behind a Democratic Congress and an unpopular, enfeebled President Bush.
But those accounts fail to capture the enduring dark cloud that Karl Rove has cast over the American political landscape. His grim legacy is certainly not about public policy (about which he cared little) or even about winning and losing (about which he cared a great deal). No, the indelible mark of Karl Rove is the permanent transformation and debasement of American politics itself.
Divide, Suppress and Conquer
Any account of the Age of Rove must start with his trademark Republican electoral strategy of "divide, suppress and conquer." Facing an American public with an overwhelming - and persistent - preference for Democratic positions virtually across the board, Karl Rove pioneered a two-pronged approach to delivering Republican control of Congress and the White House. First, fire up the Republicans' hard right base with red meat issues such as abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, while using the proven conservative "distribution" channel of churches and single issue advocacy groups to get them to the polls. Second, drive down the participation of potential Democratic and independent voters through unprecedented redistricting, curbs on registration, onerous new ID requirements, polling place eligibility challenges, and, when all else fails, cheating.
Rove's grim Malthusian calculus is quite simple. Get half of the half that vote. Given the GOP's unparalleled 72-hour voter turnout machine, the fewer Americans that actually vote, the better the Republicans' chances. Heading into the 2004 campaign, Karl Rove predicted that the GOP's ability to turn out 4 million more evangelical Christian voters would cement President Bush's reelection. So same-sex marriage bans were proposed in 11 states, including key battlegrounds like Ohio. (8 more were on ballots in 2006.) Crusades for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and against stem cell research and "activist" judges delivered the millions of radical right voters to the polls.
But that's only half the story. The Republicans' 26% strategy of winning half of the half only works if Democrats and independents won't - or can't - vote. And as I wrote last fall, this is where Rove's unprecedented voter suppression efforts comes in.
The coordinated Republican suppression drive takes many forms. Successful redistricting efforts, led by Tom Delay in Texas, assured the GOP of more reliably Republican House seats. New voter registration barriers, especially the onerous penalties for sign up errors in Florida, keep overwhelmingly Democratic minority voters off the rolls. Restrictive voter ID laws in Georgia, Missouri and Arizona are designed to erect similar roadblocks. And forming the last line of defense is a deviously sophisticated array of GOP election-day schemes, including vote caging, phone jamming and robo-calling.
Central to Rove's campaign to deny the vote to likely Democrats and independents is the Republicans' phony war against voter fraud. (That phony war is also the fundamental objective behind the Bush administration's political purge of U.S. attorneys.) Despite the conclusion of a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report that "there is little polling place fraud, or at least much less than is claimed, including voter impersonation, 'dead' voters, noncitizen voting and felon voters," the cry of vote fraud remains a Rove staple.
The Medium is the Message
Just as important to Rove's success was his understanding and leverage of the transformation of American media over the past decade. Rove harnessed for the dark purposes of the Republican Party the emergence of the 21st century "infotainment" complex, that nexus where politics, entertainment and news merge.
When politics is reduced to theater, entertainment values and tricks of the trade are paramount. As I wrote earlier:

American politics must now compete with an oversupply of other entertainment and information sources, from television, radio, books, newspapers and magazines to web sites, online video, Podcasts and more.
Politics is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict, and good versus evil rule the day. In a time of great uncertainty at home and abroad, for overworked Americans awash in sea of information, visceral appeals and gut-level emotions, not data, facts and analysis, cut through the noise.
And that gives the conservative message machine a significant, built-in advantage over liberals. In this environment, confrontation, indignation, morality plays, good guys and axes of evil naturally dominate political debate, just as they do in Hollywood blockbusters. The fear-mongering, fury and self-righteousness of Fox News, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity and Coulter makes much better theater than "nurturers" like Bill Moyers. Conservatives rage, liberals whine. And rage is much more entertaining.

Karl Rove understood this all too well. Going back to George W. Bush's 1994 Texas gubernatorial race against Ann Richards, Rove's tactic of choice was a frontal attack on an opponent's strength. In 2002, Vietnam war hero and triple amputee Max Clelend was portrayed as a friend of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In 2004, the Swift Boating of three-time Purple Heart recipient John Kerry fatally undermined his bid to unseat George Bush. In each case, others among the right-wing media and conservative 527's did the dirty work; no fingerprints from Karl Rove or George W. Bush were found at the scene of the crime.
For Karl Rove, the invasion of Iraq and the supposed global war on terror were not ends in themselves, but merely more arrows in his political quiver. (Just ask Joseph Wilson and his wife, the outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.) His branding of Democrats as defeatists and traitors reached its apogee in the summer of 2005:

"I think they (Democrats) have a pre-9/11 world view and I think that's one of the biggest reasons President Bush was re-elected because the American people understood they wanted a president and a philosophy that took on the terrorists abroad to keep us safer at home and guide our ways."

The damage resulting to American politics and public policy from this cynical manipulation of war and terrorism by Rove is clear. The United States blindly rushed to war in Iraq, virtually without debate and without opposition. As an October 2003 PIPA survey showed, even after the invasion of Iraq, majorities of Americans continued to believe Bush administration claims about Saddam (Iraq role in 9/11, an alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and Saddam's WMD) all long since proven false. (Unsurprisingly, viewers of Fox News were the most delusional.) As late as July 2006, fully 50% of Americans still believed the discredited claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Politicizing Government
No aspect of the influence of Karl Rove may be as insidious as the Republican politicization of government. In area after area, supposedly non-partisan functions of the federal government were unethically and often illegally appropriated for the partisan political objectives of President Bush and the GOP.
The U.S. attorneys scandal is a case in point. The purge of nine U.S. prosecutors was designed to enable the Republican crusade against expanded minority voter participation, all under the banner of the war against "vote fraud." USAs in Wisconsin and Alabama were rewarded for their selective prosecution of Democratic officials. Those, like David Iglesias in New Mexico and John McKay in Washington who refused to bring bogus actions were fired. Meanwhile, Carol Lam in California was sacked for bringing down GOP Congressman Duke Cunningham.
As Sidney Blumenthal and Digby each wrote, Rove's redirection of the career civil service for partisan Republican ends may be his most disturbing accomplishment. Hatch Act violations of prohibitions of political activity by senior officials have apparently become routine in the Bush administration. It's no wonder Lurita Doan, the disgraced head of the GSA, saw nothing wrong with presentations to career staff by Rove and his associates designed to "help our candidates." Only a Rove aide like Scott Jennings could portray these briefings as "thank yous" to career staffers for work well done.
The examples of Rove's hijacking the non-partisan machinery of government for the GOP are too numerous to list here. From global warming and the battle over the Plan B emergency contraceptive to censored Surgeon General reports an Vice President Cheney's intervention in the 2002 Klamath Basin irrigation wars, Karl Rove and the Bush administration ensured Republican politics would trump science at every turn.
The Arrogance of Infallibility
A critical ingredient to Karl Rove's Republican brand was its aggressive assertion of its own infallibility. Opponents were to be mocked and belittled, while Republican positions were natural and unassailable.
That arrogance took many forms. Rove not only caricatured Democrats' supposed "pre-9/11 worldview", he taunted them as well. The same man who told White House aide David Kuo to "just get me a f**king faith based-thing " in order to keep evangelicals happy also admitted to Christopher Hitchens, "I'm not fortunate enough to be a person of faith." In November 2004, Rove crowed "I change constitutions, I put churches in schools." Even on his way out, Rove couldn't help tweaking his opponents, "I'm Moby Dick and we've got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Captain Ahab." (The resemblance between Rove and a white whale is uncanny, though the similarities end there.)
The in-your-face style of Karl Rove was hardly limited to occasional rhetorical parries. His disdain for both popular opinion and Congressional majorities also took the form of President Bush's unprecedented reliance on highly controversial recess appointments. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton was disliked by Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as being despised within the State Department. Yet he received a recess appointment from President Bush, who decried the Senate's refusal to offer Bolton an "up-or-down vote." Worse still, Rove had Bush uses a recess appointment to ensconce Republican supporter and $50,000 Swift Boat contributor Sam Fox as the U.S. ambassador to Belgium.
No Policy, Only Politics
Ultimately, Karl Rove represented the complete sublimation of policy to politics during his tenure in the Bush White House. It is not merely that he simultaneously occupied both the roles of political director and deputy chief of staff. For Rove, in essence there is no policy, only politics. No public good, only political power. Using terror threats and the war in Iraq to bludgeon political opponents is no different from flip-flopping on Medicare prescription drug coverage, the 9/11 Commission or the Department of Homeland Security. The issue is never what the American people need, but what Republican electoral politics require.
The retrospectives of most analysts notwithstanding, it is dangerous to forget just how close Karl Rove came to pulling off his dream of the permanent Republican majority. Even with the Iraq fiasco, but for the greed of Jack Abramoff, the corruption of Duke Cunningham and the October revelations regarding the predilection of Mark Foley for young boys, the Republicans would likely still control both houses of Congress.
Last year, Time magazine awarded its 2006 Person of the Year to "You," the new wave of Americans online using blogs and social networking tools to transform politics in the United States. Sadly, it is Karl Rove who was perhaps the Man of the Decade, leaving a stain on American government, culture and society with his politics of division and hate. He and his generation of Republican operatives like Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Ken Mehlman rewrote the rules of American politics for the worse.
Hopefully in the long run, "you" will win out. But for now, at least, Karl Rove and his like have the upper hand.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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