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Karl Rove: The Architect

Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; 2:00 PM

Who is Karl Rove? How was he able to secure re-election for President Bush? What are his plans for the second term?

Washington Post staff writer Mike Allen came online to discuss his Post article, Four More Years Attributed to Rove's Strategy (Post, Nov. 7).

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Mike Allen: Welcome to this Washingtonpost.com chat. I felt very disoriented this weekend having dinner with friends, watching football, going to my own church -- I thought I should be in Ohio or Florida, listening to ear-splitting renditions of the President's campaign theme song, Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America." Visitors to Washingtonpost.com always have fascinating and challenging questions, so let's get started. I'm coming to your from my actual desk, not a bus this time.


Brunswick, Maine: Is Karl Rove a dedicated conservative, with thought out positions on a variety of issues, or more of a political how to win guy, who isn't particularly committed to the issues? Or is he both? Thanks.

Mike Allen: Mr. Rove would insist that relevant set of values is the President's set of values, and President Bush is both an ardent conservative and an unyielding political competitor -- as can be seen from the fervor with which he threw himself into defeating incumbent Senate Democrats in 2002, and his willingness to devote a significant part of every speech to attacking Senator Kerry. Remember that one of the President's functions on his father's campaign was to play bad cop, to be the enforcer. So in the President and Mr. Rove, you have conservatives playing for keeps. In the story the Dan Balz and I wrote for Sunday's paper, we had people pointing out that the Bush-Cheney campaign expanding the Republican vote without watering down the rhetoric or policy.


Arlington, Va.: How does Mr. Rove--who I consider the best political strategist ever--even surpassing his friend Lee Atwater--withstand strategic scrutiny from within his own team. As you alluded in your article that even members of his own team question his moves.

Mike Allen: The number of people who questioned his moves internally was extremely small. (And even smaller today, as you might guess.) The campaign had as much organizational discipline as it had message discipline, and Republicans we talked to said that was a major reason for the campaign's success. Here's what one Republican official told me: "The Bush campaign worked because everyone knew that Karl has been given the charge by the President to organize, to conceive, and to strategize. There were no competing lines of authority. There were no competing notions of who they president. There was no one trying to make Bush something else."


London, UK: If you could point to one big difference between the approaches of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, what would it be?

Mike Allen: Lee Atwater worked in politics, not government. Mr. Rove does both simultaneously, making him much more powerful. Some people might be surprised to learn that Karl Rove did not technically work for the campaign. He is a White House official -- Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the President. He sits at the nexus of politics and policy -- the place, as one conservative pointed out to me, where the agenda is won and lost.


New York, N.Y.: Articles like yours is one of the reasons why a president with the most devastating record since at least Herbert Hoover has been able to betray the American people once again. Instead of exposing the distortions and the lies of his campaign (and you should better have done that before election day) you are now celebrating the head of his attack machine against the truth. Mr. Rove is just like Mr. Bush an extremist who has betrayed the American people again and again. If the media had understood what was at stake last Tuesday they would have exposed Mr. Rove and his "winning" strategy much earlier -- as a strategy of scare tactics and of lying and denying the facts.

Mike Allen: Even though I'm not sure how to answer, I'm posting this question so people can see the strong emotions what Karl Rove evokes. (Also gives a hing of what it's like to read my e-mail or answer my phone.)


Silver Spring, Md.: I understand that Karl Rove doesn't believe he ran a negative campaign, yet nearly every time I turned on the news I was hearing charges against Kerry that he was a "flip flopper" and a "liberal" etc.. Plus there was the whole issue of the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, which weren't directly organized by Rove, but it appears that there were close links between the group and the President's election campaign. What's your take on this? Did Rove run a negative campaign?

Mike Allen: "Negative" is in the eye of the beholder. It is a fact that much of the Bush-Cheney campaign's rhetoric and advertising was focused on the alleged deficienies of its opponent. Political consultants call that "contrast" advertising. You or I might call it an attack. However "negative" it may seem to you, political scientists think it generally works, and this campaign seems unlikely to change that view.


Reid Hall: Glad to see you're back on the must-call-on list for presidential news conferences. But are you risking that status by pushing the one-question rule? Aren't you mindful of the will of the people?

Mike Allen: Reid Hall--my favorite building (well, second favorite building, ladies) at Washington and Lee University -- Thank you for writing -- I suspect this may be one of the professors who used to write "Nuts!" on my papers about the Lexington Police Department -- They were right of course -- Whenever I write about a piece of legislation, I always say what it actually does, instead of just covering the politics, because Ham Smith told me I should -- My favorite quotation from the President's news conference last week was: "Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three questions." That was to Terence Hunt, who has covered the White House for The Associated Press since the Reagan presidency. Here was my question: "Mr. President -- thank you, Mr. President. Do you plan to reshape
your Cabinet for the second term, or will any changes come at the instigation of individuals? And as part of the same question, may I ask you what you've learned about Cabinet government, what works, what doesn't work? And do you
mind also addressing the same question about the White House staff?" Luckily, the President laughed and said, "The post-election euphoria did not last very long here at the press conference."


Washington, D.C.: This may be a dumb question but who pays Karl Rove's salary, the Republican Party or me? Because if I'm paying, he's not doing a whole lot for me.

Mike Allen: Mr. Rove is a White House official. As of June, he was one of 17 officials making the top salary of $157,000.


London, UK: Following up on my earlier question: would the same go for Dick Morris? He was also both political and policy yet the accolades clearly don't come trickling in. What is the biggest difference between Morris and Rove?

Mike Allen: Dick Morris provided advice about governing to President Clinton as a consultant but was not a government official.


Boston, Mass.: I have no doubt Mr. Rove is a smart man, but I think the national press corps tends to over-hype the role of campaign gurus. Bush won mostly because of his policies and persona, and Mr. Rove simply publicized those things.

But I could be wrong? What tactic/strategy/move did Rove make without which Bush would've lost?

Mike Allen: Democrats will tell you that in addition to President's message about safety and security and steadfastness and wholesomeness, he won because the Bush-Cheney campaign and Republican National Committee turned his vote out very shrewdly with the largest force of political volunteers in American history -- an effort that was four years in the making.


Virginia: Has Rove ever spoken about Bob Shrum? If so, what are his feelings on the man (or vice versa for that matter)?

Mike Allen: I asked Mr. Shrum that very question today: "Is Karl Rove smart, or his he lucky?" His reply: "Oh, he's clearly smart." So I asked, "What was the smartest thing he did -- what did he see that others didn't?" Mr. Shrum replied, "I believe the organizational component of their campaign was extraordinary. When you heard about, on Election Day, these huge turnouts in Ohio, your first reaction, was, Well that's it, we're going to be fine. They did a very good job. 2002 was not a fluke in terms of their turnout operation. They did a very, very good job of political mechanics."


Fairfax, Va.: How specific did Rove get in his metrics and basically categorizing voters?

Mike Allen: Publicly, not very. Privately, he championed and approved a system that targeted individuals -- for registration, and later for turnout -- using very specific and expensive demographic data, married with information about the issues that are most important to them.


Dallelsport, Wash.: Why are these articles about Rove and other Republican campaign leaders couched in language that suggests they are engaged in nefarious or unlawful activity?

Are they not doing what campaign leaders do?

Mike Allen: Don't know what you're referring to. "Nefarious" is a word my Grandmother likes -- it's what naughty boys on her block were engaged in. The Bush-Cheney campaign and Republican National Committee had a lot of expensive lawyers and officials say they believe they complied with the law completely. It's a subject for another day, but the campaign certainly exposed a lot of apparently unintended consequences of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that the President signed on March 27, 2002 -- before flying out of Washington on a two-day fund-raising swing that raised $4 million for Republicans.


Bethesda, Md.: How does Mr. Rove explain the harsh GOP campaigns in 2002 aimed at Democrats who were fairly supportive of the pesident's agenda -- such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Cleland and Georgia? How were those cut throat efforts consistent with the president's promise to work with members of both parties and his promise to bring civility to Washington? The win at all costs 2002 effort cause me to doubt the sincerity of the president's new statements of wanting to serve and work with Americans who opposed his re-election.

Mike Allen: The President's ferocious midterm campaign of 2002 caused Democrats to question whether they had any incentive to work with him in Washington.


Oslo, Norway: In "Plan of Attack", Bob Woodward describes Karl Rove's attitude toward Swedes: "Rove saw that the president was "wired up" about Blix. The president knew Rove's attitude toward the Swedes. As the highest-ranking Norwegian-American in the White House -- and perhaps the only one -- Rove was convinced of the historical duplicity of the Swedes, who had invaded Norway in 1814 and ruled the country until 1905. There was a long-standing grudge and it was a running joke between the president and Rove."

How do you think Rove's Norwegian heritage influences his political thinking and attitude on particular issues?

Mike Allen: I can't give you an informed answer but plenty of people in the White House will enjoy this question, because Karl Rove often jokes about his heritage, which perhaps fueled his optimism about the Wisconsin and Minnesota votes. (Senator Kerry won them both.)


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: My husband was the Kerry-Edwards Communications Director in Florida. Any advice on how to recover? Or how I should treat him when he returns?

Mike Allen: Why is he still there?


Dayton, Ohio: Has Karl Rove been responsible for the election of Republicans in Congress throughout the country? If so, how?

Mike Allen: It is a longtime Bush-Rove precept that they do not want lonely victories. Mr. Rove was extremely involved in recruiting and choosing candidates in 2002, and the President's operation helped key congressional candidates this year, in part through fund-raising appearances by the Vice President.


Washington, D.C.: Rove is often portrayed as a genius, but in fact his earlier efforts to engage in "outreach" to black and Hispanic voters has mostly failed. Bush risked alienating his white base by proposing an amnesty for illegal aliens, but that plan was swept under the rug (for the time being). Given these facts, I see Rove as more lucky than good, and more opportunistic than principled. Care to comment?

Mike Allen: Please look again. From Sunday's article: "[Bush-Cheney campaign manager]Ken Mehlman noted that Bush increased his support among various groups: women, Roman Catholics, Latinos (although some people question the accuracy of the exit polls showing Bush with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote). Even among black voters, Bush increased his support by two percentage points."


Signal Mountain, Tenn.: While Rove himself may be reluctant to speculate on his "next act", what do you or others who know him think he will do for 2008 and beyond? Thanks.

Mike Allen: You can expect Mr. Rove, visibily or invisibly, to be a powerful force in the midterm elections of 2006. Rome was not realigned in a day. Friends expect him to stay in his job at least that long, although the only announcement the White House has made so far about second-term staffing is that Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card. Jr. will remain. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the President asked Secretary Card -- "the Chief," as he is known internally -- to remain, and Card "was honored to accept." Lots of people at the White House and throughout the administration are hoping to have the same honor in coming days.


Mike Allen: This was fun -- thank you for insightful questions. I'm going to do some actual work now -- I have an article in tomorrow's paper. I will tease you: the first sentence includes the word "Kerry." Please log on to Washingtonpost.com to break the suspense. We'll chat again soon.


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