EVERY WARTIME president has his general. Abraham Lincoln had Ulysses S. Grant. Woodrow Wilson had John Pershing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had Dwight D. Eisenhower. And President George W. Bush has ... Karl Rove.
This year, Rove, senior adviser to the president, became the most dominant force in domestic politics. From canning Bush’s economic team and taking over trade policy to orchestrating the GOP recapture of the Senate and cutting former Senate majority leader Trent Lott loose, Rove has been at the center of the most important political moves this year. And with the departure of White House communications adviser Karen Hughes in July, Rove’s standing has only grown.
Esquire magazine’s Ron Suskind, who has carved out a journalistic niche writing about Rove, gave us two much-discussed quotes this year that capture the extent and character of Rove’s power. In July, he wrote about the departure of Hughes, who moved back to Texas to spend more time with her family. In that story, White House chief of staff Andrew Card ominously warned of Rove’s growing power: "I’ll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. They are going to have to really step up, but it won’t be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary." In the January 2003 issue of the magazine, Suskind relies heavily on the former head of faith-based services at the White House, John DiIulio, for his story on Rove. DiIulio characterizes the people running the White House (read: Rove) as "Mayberry Machiavellis." (DiIulio later issued an apology for his remarks.)
Meanwhile, when Jim Jordan, a Democratic operative now working with Senator John Kerry’s presidential effort, was asked back on August about the impact the war on terrorism would have in the November elections, he replied: "You mean when General Rove calls in the air strikes in October?" (Rove dismissed the suggestion that he was behind the White House’s push to go to war with Iraq in a September 29 Time-magazine piece headlined general karl rove, reporting for duty, saying, "That’s not me, and you know it.")
Of course, no one seriously believes that Rove was the driving force behind Bush’s decision to roll out the campaign for war. Not when Bush’s cabinet is filled with hawks like Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who have had a jones for Saddam Hussein since 1991. That said, Rove was quick to find a way to profit politically from the policymakers’ decisions. Both the war on terror and a potential war against Iraq were key to Bush’s talking points when he went on his 15-state tour the week before the November midterm elections. There’s no question that in 2002 Rove became one of the — if not the — most powerful and influential strategists American politics has ever seen.
ROVE’S POLITICAL hero is Mark Hanna, who devised the "front porch" strategy for President William McKinley in 1896. But it’s unlikely that Hanna, who orchestrated a plan that had McKinley do all his campaigning from his Ohio home, could have accomplished what Rove did this fall. (In light of Bush’s image around the world, it’s also hard to imagine Rove saying what Hanna said about Theodore Roosevelt: "That damned cowboy is president.") Under Rove’s political stewardship, Bush became the first Republican president to pick up congressional seats in a midterm election since Lincoln did it in 1862.
Rove accomplished this feat by borrowing heavily from the Democrats’ methods of electioneering. During the midterm elections, Rove beat the Dems at their own game: get out the vote (GOTV). A two-year study Rove and the national GOP undertook of the 2000 presidential election found that the Republicans "underperformed in the last 72 hours/final stages of the last two elections" when it came to turnout, says Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg. So Rove instituted a 72-hour plan leading up to the November 5 midterm elections in which GOP grassroots activists contacted voters, reminding them to vote and offering to take them to the polls. Rove dubbed his operation the "72-Hour Task Force." It basically mimicked organized labor’s system of door-knocking and phone calls that has historically worked so well for Democrats. In place of union workers, however, the Republicans utilized social and religious conservatives to pound the pavement and work the phones. (This wasn’t the only page Rove took from the Democrats’ playbook. He’s also a big fan of the catchy phrase — utilized so effectively by the Clintonites during the 1990s — borrowing "leave no child behind" directly from the Children’s Defense Fund and developing independently the term "compassionate conservatism.")
In the days leading up the November 5 election, Rove and his team also kept a sharp eye on the polls and Democratic ad buys. The GOP poured money into Senate races that the polls deemed too close to call, such as the ones in Georgia, where Congressman Saxby Chambliss took on incumbent senator Max Cleland, and in New Hampshire, where Congressman John Sununu and New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen battled over the seat left vacant by Republican Bob Smith, who had lost in the primary to Sununu. (Before agreeing to challenge Cleland, Chambliss told Rove he needed Bush to come to Georgia twice, according to an account in Time magazine. Just twice? asked Rove. "No Karl, I mean twice a month," Chambliss replied. That’s what Bush did.) Rove also sent Bush out to other parts of the country on an unprecedented tour that put his political capital — all accrued after the terrorist attacks of September 11 — on the line for Republican candidates. (Bush even made a stop in the Bay State on Mitt Romney’s behalf.) In the last five days of the campaign, Bush made a final push for key Republicans in close races, making a mind-boggling 15 campaign stops around the country.
But for Rove, the president’s moves this year were geared for victory not just in 2002, but in 2004 as well. In the spring, Rove pushed for the passage of a steel tariff in February and March — a measure desired desperately by union members in the industrial states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, which collectively represent 49 out of the 270 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election. Unlike Massachusetts, which almost always goes for the Democrat in a presidential race, these states are true swing states that sometimes go for the Democrat and sometimes for the Republican. In 2000, Bush won West Virginia and Ohio, but lost Pennsylvania and its 23 electoral votes by four points. He’s going to need these states if he wants to win in 2004. So in a decidedly anti-free-market move, Bush raised the tariffs in March. The act drew criticism from the usually pro-Bush editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which presented its commentary on the move under the headline secretary of state rove: bush sells out his principles by backing steel tariffs.
But Rove hasn’t confined his economic moves to pushing for tariffs in industrial swing states. It was no secret in Washington that when the stock market lost 390 points in July, Rove was looking for someone to blame. Making someone take the fall, whether it involves a true policy change or not, at least conveys action on the president’s part. First, Rove turned to the corporate leaders who supported Bush and pressured them to back accounting reforms in the wake of the Enron, WorldCom, and ImClone scandals. Then the White House pressured Securities and Exchange commissioner Harvey Pitt to resign, which he did in November, in part because he was seen as too soft on corporate reform. Then Rove turned his attention to the people who implement economic policy: Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who was viewed as something of a loose cannon to begin with (not long after he was appointed, he implied in public remarks that he didn’t back Bush’s plan for tax cuts) and National Economic Council chief Lawrence Lindsey. They were let go in December, fall guys for a faltering economy. Whether O’Neill’s replacement, former CSX Corporation CEO John Snow, has the Wall Street acumen to get the economy back on track is another question.
But the most significant thing Rove did this year was cut loose a major Republican leader who was caught live on CSPAN openly pining for the days of Jim Crow. The move wasn’t so much about ensuring that the Republicans garner the support of 13 to 15 percent of the African-American vote — up from the nine percent Bush received in 2000 — though that was a factor. It was more about Bush being unable to afford alienating white suburban moderates. Attracting such voters was, of course, the aim of the Republican National Convention when the GOP trotted out a 10-year-old Latino girl, Marie Griego from New Mexico, to sing the national anthem; scheduled a speech by African-American Virginia state legislator Paul Harris, who now holds the seat once occupied by Thomas Jefferson; and spotlighted Colin Powell, who was then a private citizen. (See "Free to Be the GOP," News and Features, August 7, 2000).
Bush would have little hope of winning enough votes from minority voters with an out-and-proud segregationist leading his party in the Senate. Voters have notoriously short memories, but Lott’s observation that if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, when he ran on the segregationist Dixiecrat platform, the country "wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years" will live on in posterity, thanks to C-SPAN. (Credit Web bloggers for publicizing Lott’s remark and keeping the pressure on him.) If Lott were still the majority leader in 2004, his racist tribute to Thurmond would have made for a killer ad for the Democrats. So much so that even those voters who missed the controversy this time around would have been made aware of it two years from now.
From early on in the scandal, speculation suggested that Rove wanted Lott gone. After all, even before Lott put his foot in his mouth, he wasn’t Rove’s favorite Senate leader — he was too divisive and not cooperative enough with the White House. Rove’s fingerprints were all over a December 17 Washington Post story on the controversy. The story quoted "Republicans close to Bush" as saying that focus on the matter could devastate Republican efforts "to reach out to minority voters" and endanger attempts "to win the trust of moderate Democrats." It also reported on a conversation between Rove and Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma. Rove, the story reported, did not object to a leadership challenge lodged against Lott. And when Lott wanted help from the White House to save his skin — he requested that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell make statements in support of him — the White House refused, leaving the senator twisting in the wind. Lott resigned on Friday.