There is an old joke that campaign veterans toss around war rooms, bars and BS sessions. We say there are people who have worked in campaigns who say that they have lost some – and we call those folks operatives, managers, strategists, consultants; and then there are people who work in campaigns and say that they have never lost, and we call them liars.
The joke reflects an obsession with winning as the real benchmark of success in politics. By that measure, Karl Rove’s career has to be deemed a success. He built the Republican party of Texas into one of the most powerful state parties in America.
Nationally he has pulled off some of the most unexpected and impressive victories of modern political history. (I will not be debating the 2000 election for the purposes of this article, but I also will not be crediting him with it, so let us just move on to the next cycle.)
Mr Rove picked up seats in what was an almost historically impossible context in 2002. Then in 2004, he engineered one of the most remarkable feats in American politics. He got Americans to re-elect a president who they really did not want to re-elect. Even the Republican defeat in 2006 was predictable and well within the range of historical norms so, by this sport’s standard of winning and losing, there is still no black mark on Rove’s record.
If we concluded our analysis in 2007 and confined our judgment merely to Mr Rove’s immediate electoral record, we would have no choice but to judge him a spectacular success. There is no doubt that Mr Rove won elections. He has perhaps one of the most remarkable win-percentages in modern American politics.
If only things were so neat and simple. The evidence is now pretty conclusive that Mr Rove may have lost more than just an election in 2006. He has lost an entire generation for the Republican party.
A late July poll for Democracy Corps, a non-profit polling company, shows that a generic Democratic presidential candidate now wins voters under 30 years old by 32 percentage points. The Republican lead among younger white non-college-educated men, who supported President George W. Bush by a margin of 19 percentage points three years ago, has shrunk to 2 percentage points. Ideological divisions between the Republican party and young voters are growing. Young voters generally favour larger government providing more services, 68 per cent to 28 per cent. On every issue, from the budget to national security, young voters responded overwhelmingly that Democrats would do a better job in government.
It is not just Democracy Corps that has found this. A host of new polls and surveys over the course of the past few months has served as a harbinger of a rocky 2008 election for Republicans.
The March poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 50 per cent of Americans identify as Democrats while only 35 per cent say they are Republican. The June NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed 52 per cent of Americans would prefer a Democratic president while only 31 per cent would support a Republican, the largest gap in the 20-year history of the survey.
Mr Rove’s famous electoral strategy – focusing on the Republican base first – is also largely responsible for a shift in international public opinion against the US. It would not be fair to blame Mr Rove for the Iraq war. But it is clearly fair to blame his strategy for the Terry Schiavo fiasco and the Republicans’ adherence to the policies and doctrines of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson. The world and now most of the US are contemptuous of the theocratic underpinnings of the policy Mr Rove ushered into government.
There is also a distinction to be made between Karl Rove the political strategist and Karl Rove the government official. Mr Rove was not just an operative sitting at the Republican National Committee and scheming. He had a West Wing office. This distinguishes him from other political operatives, whose roles were outside the White House doing scheduling, advance work and presentation. They were not firing and hiring or shaping national security policy.
Mr Rove was as powerful a government figure as he was a campaign figure. The past six and a half years of Mr Rove’s career were spent as a very, very senior and extraordinarily influential Bush administration official.
He has been assistant to the president, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff. Mr Rove was the architect of social security reform, immigration, the hiring and firing of justice department officials and the placement of literally thousands of ideologically driven buffoons throughout the US government. As deputy chief of staff he was also responsible for handling the White House post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. On these actions, history has already rendered its judgment on Mr Rove. And, as we say in Louisiana, “it ain’t pretty”.
When it comes to judging Mr Rove’s political career, I am reminded of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s meeting with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, when Mr Kissinger asked, “What do you think of the French Revolution?” Zhou replied: “It’s too soon to tell.”
If the trends hold, the one thing that we can be sure of is that Mr Rove’s political grave will receive no lack of irrigation from future Republicans.
The writer is an international political consultant, founder of Democracy Corps, and is working on a new book whose tentative title is The Lost Generation: How the Democrats can Capitalize on the Current Problems of the Republican Party. He was chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign