Karl Rove is the first to admit it: he's become a myth, a man from whom political magic is expected. Last fall, for instance, Republicans around the country and even in the White House waited for Rove to devise a campaign strategy that would keep Republicans from losing the House and Senate and George Bush from becoming a lame duck president. But instead of a Rove miracle, Republicans and Bush suffered a terrible defeat.
Rove is the greatest political mind of his generation and probably of any generation. He not only is a breathtakingly smart strategist but also a clever tactician. He knows history, understands the moods of the public, and is a visionary on matters of public policy. But he is not a magician.
Political advisers like Rove offer advice, not magic. And Rove's advice has been very good over the years. He got Bush to run as "a different kind of Republican" in 2000--that is, different from Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. And he made sure that as president, Bush (unlike his father) stayed closed to the conservative base of the Republican party.
Rove's most impressive achievement was his successful strategy for Bush's re-election in 2004. It was an outside-in strategy of holding the base and reaching out from it to attract independents, soft Republicans, and conservative Democrats. His assumption--a correct one, in my view--was that the conservative Republican base was closer to the political center in America than was the Democrats' liberal base.
I'm not sure Bush would have won if he'd pursued a more conventional strategy of largely ignoring conservatives, running from the center, and focusing on moderate and independent voters. He would have spent the campaign being attacked by conservatives as well as Democrats.
The strategy produced an army of several million enthusiastic volunteers, who had the job of turning out a huge Bush vote. Democrats, with their best ground game in years manned by paid campaign workers, didn't believe volunteers could match their professionals. They were wrong. In states like New Mexico, the Democrats generated a remarkable turnout, but Republicans did better, increasing the Bush vote even in areas of declining population.
Rove's career demonstrates two things: the important role a strategist can play, and the sharp limits on what even the best of the bunch can accomplish. The press has created a legend about political advisers and consultants, namely that they have the power to win or lose campaigns and in Rove's case get historic legislation passed. In truth, they don't.
The most important factor in elections is not who the strategist is. In most races, the quality of the candidate, the partisan landscape, the ideology of the time--those are far more significant factors. Strategists mostly affect campaigns at the margin.
Yet the legend of their capability to achieve much more simply won't die. Rove has been faulted for the failure of Bush's two major domestic initiatives of his second term, Social Security reform and immigration reform. For sure, Rove strongly favored both policies and expected them to fare better than they did. But is he to blame for near-unanimous Democratic opposition to overhauling Social Security? Of course not. And it was Bush's dip in popularity, not anything Rove did or didn't do, that wiped out any White House influence on immigration.
Rove, by the way, defends both initiatives. By putting Social Security on the agenda, Bush prompted "an important debate for the country to have." He thought, wrongly as it turned out, that Democrats would be willing to compromise on the issue. On immigration, he blames Majority Leader Harry Reid for yanking the bipartisan bill from the floor as it was nearing passage.
In the latest issue of the Atlantic, Rove takes a hit for trying to force an historic political realignment and make Republicans the majority party. "Rove didn't wait for history to happen to him--he tried to create it on his own," Joshua Green wrote. This is nonsense.Rove talked for years about a "rolling realignment," which was indeed occurring in fits and starts and was lifting Republicans out of minority status. It began in 1980 with Ronald Reagan's election, took a huge leap with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and continued under Bush with Republican gains in 2002 and 2004. Republicans had gained parity with Democrats or better.
While his goals were lofty, Rove was under no illusion that he could produce a political realignment. His effort was aimed at keeping the rolling realignment rolling as much as possible. Absent Iraq--a matter beyond the reach of Rove's influence--it might still be rolling.
When Rove departs the White House at the end of August, he'll be leaving with his "legendary reputation seriously diminished by the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm election," according to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. Nagourney doesn't seem to understand what strategists like Rove are capable of, and not capable of.
They can advise a candidate or a party how best to deal with a situation. But they can't change the situation. And they can't transform the circumstances at the time of an election.
In 2006, the situation was bad for Republicans. The Iraq war was going poorly. How could Rove have altered that fact? Meanwhile, congressional Republicans were beset by corruption. Rove regrets the White House didn't force a few troubled Republican incumbents to retire, but that would have made little difference in the outcome of the election.
Rove was tremendously important for what he did: help a candidate, Bush, win four elections and influence the Republican party in ways that allowed it to grow. He shouldn't be held responsible for failures neither he nor anyone in his line of work have the power to avert.