What Karl Rove Didn't Build

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

AS A POLITICAL operative, Karl Rove, the White House guru who announced his resignation yesterday, has few equals in modern American history. Like his Republican role model from the late 19th century, Mark Hanna, Mr. Rove attached himself to an affable politician (Hanna's George W. Bush was William McKinley of Ohio) and rode along first to the governorship of a major state and then to the White House. Along the way, Mr. Rove helped convert Texas from a predominantly Democratic state into a Republican stronghold, helped the GOP win an unprecedented midterm election victory in 2002, and engineered Mr. Bush's remarkable reelection over John F. Kerry in 2004. Approve of them or not, these are not small accomplishments. Mr. Rove was very good at gathering, analyzing and exploiting information about the electorate. He cared about what actual voters actually thought -- yes, including their "anger points."

At this moment, though, it's more pertinent to contemplate the political might-have-beens of the Rove-engineered Bush presidency, which now appears set to limp along until January 2009. Mr. Bush won elections as governor and president because he positioned himself, under Mr. Rove's tutelage, as a "compassionate conservative" and a "uniter, not a divider." After Sept. 11, 2001, not just the whole country but most of the world was prepared to follow Mr. Bush on those terms.

But when polling data showed Mr. Rove that there was more to be gained, politically, by intensifying support among the conservative Republican base, Mr. Bush abandoned persuading the middle and focused on motivating the right. Thus were born a host of policies -- on Social Security, Guantanamo, stem cell research, same-sex marriage and so on -- that deepened the country's polarization and helped alienate even old friends around the globe. The quality of American political discourse was not enhanced by the (successful) Republican attack on disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, a Democratic senator from Georgia, as soft on defense. And, over the long term, Mr. Bush's short-term exploitation of Rove-identified anger points left the president with less political capital than he might have had otherwise -- capital he badly needed when the major initiative of his presidency, the war in Iraq, turned sour. On immigration, Mr. Bush pursued a moderate course, based in part on Mr. Rove's perception that the Republicans could not afford to alienate the fast-growing Hispanic demographic. But, by then, the president had lost control even of his own party's Senate caucus.

Mr. Rove is a history buff, and we think that history's ultimate judgment will not depend much on his role in the scandals of the moment -- "Plamegate" and the firings of U.S. attorneys -- to which some attribute his resignation. Rather, he should be judged on his own terms: as the would-be architect of a long-lasting Republican majority, like the one Hanna forged more than a century ago. The GOP's wipeout in 2006 would suggest that Mr. Rove did not achieve this goal, notwithstanding his brave parting words about Republican victory in 2008. And if the manufactured polarization of the Bush-Rove years did not even serve its ostensible purpose, then what was the good of it?

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