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The End of Rove's Dream

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 4, 2008 12:43 PM

Karl Rove's dream was that George W. Bush's presidency would usher in a permanent Republican majority. But as with so many of the Bush White House's big ideas, things didn't exactly go according to plan.

We'll know for sure by tomorrow, but it looks more and more like the end result of eight years of Bush has been the discrediting of his party and the loss of its commanding position in American politics.

Turning the executive branch into a political arm of the Republican Party, stoking fear and division amid the electorate, trashing opponents without mercy, and casting national security as a wedge issue -- all these tactics had short-term benefits, and indeed won Bush a second term. But ultimately, they seem to have lost America.

As John Harwood wrote in the New York Times last week: "In 2004, after President Bush won re-election with expanded Republican majorities in Congress, academics, journalists and party strategists wondered whether his blend of free-market economics, cultural conservatism and hawkishness on national security might create long-lasting Republican rule.

"'Something fundamental and significant happened,' said Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. On the eve of a second Bush term, he said, the Republican Party was 'in a stronger position than at any time since the Great Depression.'

"Today that Republican dream appears in shambles. The twin burdens of an economic crisis and an unpopular war have left Mr. Bush with, at 71 percent, the highest level of public disapproval for a president in the history of the Gallup Poll. Democrats see the chance on Nov. 4 to elect not just Senator Barack Obama but also House and Senate majorities large enough to enact his ambitious agenda."

Sidney Blumenthal writes in a Guardian opinion piece: "Today's election is poised to end the Republican era in American politics - an era that began in reaction to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the Vietnam war and the civil rights revolution, was pioneered by Richard Nixon, consolidated by Ronald Reagan, and wrecked by George W Bush.

"Almost every aspect of the Republican ascendancy has been discredited and lies in tatters - its policies, politics, and even its version of patriotism. . . .

"Now, certain factors that have dominated US politics for 40 years seem destined to recede to the far corners. In economics, supply-side panaceas and deregulation created the worst crisis since the Great Depression, requiring a conservative Republican administration to part-nationalise banks, something unimaginable under any Democratic administration. In foreign policy, neoconservatism led to the morass in Iraq and Afghanistan while undermining the western alliance. In social policy, the evangelical right battered science, the separation of church and state, and the right to privacy. Finally, the conservative principle of limited government has become a watchword for incompetence, cronyism, corruption, hypocrisy, and contempt for the rule of law."

Democratic activist Glenn W. Smith blogs for Firedoglake: "Karl Rove's deepest fantasy was that in the future, some lonely and ambitious young person would read of him as he once read of Mark Hanna, the political operative who guided President William McKinley's successful 1896 campaign. He saw himself as a right wing hero who had insured a generation of Republican rule. . . .

"This is the year America judges Karl Rove. It appears to be a harsh judgment. . . .

"For Rove, there's no exit from the hell he's created. America is at war in two foreign countries. America's reputation among the nations is at an all-time low. The economy is tanking. The Republican Party has been scattered.

"Winning campaigns is not hard. It takes no genius. Politics is checkers, not chess. It's true that the pathological sometimes have an advantage. But that advantage is due to their cold remove from a truly human universe. And it's always temporary, because, in the end, for better or worse, what is human is not virtual. We are not pretend. Politics is not PlayStation.

"And Rove's virtual fantasy has come unplugged."

Steve Chapman writes in his Chicago Tribune opinion column: "Regardless of what the polls say, it's not clear who is going to win the presidential race. But it is clear who is going to lose: George W. Bush. If this contest proves anything, it's that the electorate is sick of him and eager for someone very different. . . .

"Americans may decide to replace him with another Republican, but if Sen. John McCain emerges victorious, it will be a tribute to his efforts to convince voters that he and Mr. Bush have barely met."

As for Obama, Chapman writes that his strengths "have a way of mirroring the president's shortcomings. Mr. Bush got where he is with the help of first-class family connections; Mr. Obama had to rise through brains and initiative. Mr. Bush regularly loses wrestling matches with the English language, while Mr. Obama expresses himself with unnerving fluency.

"Mr. Bush becomes defensive and peevish when asked to answer the simplest questions about his policies; Mr. Obama never gets ruffled. Where Mr. Bush treats criticism like the Ebola virus, Mr. Obama conveys the impression that he hopes to learn from those who disagree with him.

"The response of so many people to his message of unity comes partly from weariness with the administration's nonstop scorched-earth tactics. He conveys the novel view that Americans can disagree without hating each other. . . .

"In the end, Americans may vote for either candidate. But after eight years of Mr. Bush, most of them will leave the polls singing the words of an old country tune: Thank God and Greyhound you're gone."

David Corn blogs for CQ: "Bush's style of politics, his policies, his political party--it's all been discredited. . . .

"Many presidents are elected as reactions to the previous president. George W. Bush's (faux) victory in 2000 was a reaction to the Bill Clinton soap opera. And a Barack Obama triumph would be the natural reaction to the W. years. Obama is the most progressive (or liberal) Democratic nominee since FDR ran for reelection. He is black (or biracial). He is an intellectual. He is no child of privilege. To sum up: he is the opposite of George W. Bush. Not only has Bush started two wars he couldn't finish, presided over a government that lost a major American city, and did little as a financial tsunami hit the nation; he has (I am guessing) created a yearning among many Americans for a non-Bush. And within the realm of conventional U.S. politics, Obama is about as non-Bush as it gets. No wonder Obama has a strong chance of becoming president. He spoke (endlessly) of change; he is an antidote to the Bush presidency."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic with four reasons to vote Democratic. The first is accountability: "There have been minor positive aspects to the eight-year Bush-Cheney era now coming to an end. But when the diplomatic, fiscal, Constitutional, economic, and other civic consequences are viewed as a whole, this era has, in my view, been a disaster for the United States. . . .

"For America to return the incumbent party to power after this record would make a mockery of the idea of ballot-box accountability and two-party competition. If an incumbent party retains power after this record, what is the meaning of party competition at all?"

The GOP View

Publicly, the White House denies that this is a referendum on Bushism.

Press secretary Dana Perino yesterday said Bush does not think this election is about him: "I think people have tried to make it about this President, but I think that whenever you are in America and you're looking towards the future, you want to know who's going to be your leader. And George Bush will not be the President on January 21st. The next President will be taking over, and they'll have all the responsibility that comes with that honor."

And here's an odd metaphor about a president who has never before identified with the unpopular kids: "Everybody would like to be popular," Perino said. "You can all remember that back in high school, everyone really wanted to be popular. Some of us just weren't. But that doesn't mean that you don't have principles and values that you stay true to. And that's what this President has done, and it's what he's taught a lot of us, including me."

The first lady was a bit more realistic about her husband's central role, speaking at a campaign rally in Kentucky: "After months of primary elections, campaign ads, and debates, tomorrow is finally Election Day. (Applause.) I'm really looking forward to Election Day, partly because it seems like George has been on the ticket this entire year."

Peter Wehner, formerly the director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives and essentially its leading intellectual, argues that the election will be a referendum on Bush -- but not on conservatism.

He writes in a recent Washington Post op-ed that "it is a mistake to assume that significant GOP losses, should they occur, are a referendum on conservatism. In part, the GOP's problems stem from being seen as having become less conservative and less principled."

He concludes: "The wilderness years are never pleasant, but if Republicans find themselves there after Nov. 4, they have an opportunity to revive the GOP. If Republicans become champions of an ambitious conservative reform agenda, they will begin the road back to political dominance."

So the problem was that Bush strayed from conservative principles? That's certainly not what Wehner was saying a few years ago. Blogger Matthew Yglesias appropriately called attention to a December 2004 Washington Post profile of Wehner by Dan Balz, in which Wehner expressed confidence at the time that history would look kindly on his boss: "I think he's on the right side of history and is on the right side of the important debates of our time, and he's comfortable in that," Wehner said.

And where is that supposed distance between Bush and the Republican stalwarts?

Gary Kamiya writes for Salon, "to this day, the Republican Party and the mainstream right wing has never repudiated Bush."

And how could they? "How can conservatives repudiate someone who put into practice all of their most cherished ideas? To criticize Bush on substantive grounds, they'd have to explain not only why his policies violated conservative orthodoxy, but why they never once made that argument for the last eight years. They can't do either, which is why they are forced to take the evasive, intellectually dishonest line of blaming Bush's failures on his arrogance and incompetence. Of course Bush was arrogant and incompetent, but those shortcomings don't explain his failed presidency. He failed because he acted on the extreme right-wing ideas that Reagan only paid lip service to.

"The right wing is running as far away as it can get from Bush, but it still shares his beliefs. That's why it cannot and will not muster any real arguments against his policies."

And Patrick J. Buchanan writes in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed: "The country wishes to be rid of the Bush policies and the Bush presidency. But where does the Republican Party think Bush went wrong, other than to be asleep at the wheel during Hurricane Katrina?

"The GOP needs to confront the truth: The failure of the Bush presidency lies not in a failed execution of policy but in the policies themselves and the neoconservative ideology that informed them.

"Yet, still, the party remains in denial, refusing to come to terms with the causes of its misfortune. One expects they will be given the time and opportunity for reflection soon."

A Fan

Drudge Report editor Andrew Breitbart writes in a Washington Times op-ed: "I still like George W. Bush. A lot.

"For starters, I am convinced he is a fundamentally decent man. . . .

"President Bush is far smarter, more articulate and less ideological than his plentiful detractors scream, and, ultimately, he will be judged by history - not by vengeful Democrats, hate-filled Hollywood, corrupt foreign governments, an imploding mainstream media or fleeting approval ratings.

"George W. Bush is history's president, a man for whom the long-term success or failure of democracy in Iraq will determine his place in history."

Revisionism Watch

Jeremy Lott writes in an opinion piece for Politico: "Revisionists who wish to argue for a more positive long-term assessment of President Bush's legacy have their work cut out for them. That hasn't stopped them from trying, though it needs to be said that their efforts thus far have not been terribly persuasive.

"Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argues that 'history is unlikely to remember the [Iraq] war as negatively as most assume.' . . .

"In a Newsweek cover story titled "What Bush Got Right," international editor Fareed Zakaria wrote that 'blanket criticism of Bush misses an important reality,' for 'wherever one stands' on his decision to invade Iraq, 'the [Bush administration's] foreign policies in place now are more sensible, moderate and mainstream. In many cases, the next president should follow rather than reverse them.'

"The military historian Edward Luttwak wrote in the British Prospect, 'That George W. Bush's foreign policy has been a total failure is now taken for granted by so many people that one usually hears it stated as a simple truth that need not be argued at all.' He proceeded to contest that truth, labeling Bush a modern Harry S. Truman, likely to be vindicated by history. . . .

"Wrong. Wrong. Wrong."

For instance, Lott writes: "When revisionists tout Iraq's symbolic importance, they make another strategic blunder. Iraq was a secular country run by a dictator whom the United States had caged, but his presence still served a purpose in the region. The biggest beneficiary of the American invasion was Iraq's sworn enemy, the officially theocratic and anti-American state of Iran."

Poll Watch

The final CBS News tracking poll finds: "Fifty-four percent of voters think McCain would continue Mr. Bush's policies, and the president is extremely unpopular: his approval rating now stands at 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a president. His disapproval rating of 72 percent matches his all-time high, first reached last month."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "State and national polls released yesterday underscored the steep hill McCain must climb in the final hours to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Burdened by President Bush's unpopularity and an economic crisis that redrew the race in September in Obama's favor, the senator from Arizona sprinted through a series of critical states yesterday -- all but one of which Bush carried four years ago -- exhorting his supporters to help him defy the odds."

Passing Things On

Remember all those times Bush said things like: "I came to this office to solve problems and not pass them on to future presidents and future generations"?

Mark Smith, in an Associated Press video, shows Bush expressing that sentiment. But Smith concludes that "the array of things he leaves his successor to solve is staggering."

Still There

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The world is anxiously awaiting new ideas and fresh leadership from America's new president to deal with the economic crisis that has encircled the globe with sickening speed. Unemployment is climbing, the stock market has plummeted and businesses are teetering.

"But for 77 days after the election, the problems will be George Bush's -- and both Barack Obama and John McCain have signaled they will defer to him."

And Still Causing Trouble

The New York Times editorial board writes: "While Americans eagerly vote for the next president, here's a sobering reminder: As of Tuesday, George W. Bush still has 77 days left in the White House -- and he's not wasting a minute.

"President Bush's aides have been scrambling to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and abortion rights among others -- few for the good. Most presidents put on a last-minute policy stamp, but in Mr. Bush's case it is more like a wrecking ball. We fear it could take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all of the damage."

H.D.S. Greenway writes in his Boston Globe opinion column: "Although Bush has been keeping such a low profile up to now that many could be forgiven for thinking he has already left office, the grim and sobering truth is that he has 77 days left in power, enough time to do a lot of mischief. The administration is now free of any responsibility to the Republican Party or the election. As for the American people, they were never considered by this administration to be anything more than an entity to be manipulated and lied to in the interest of unrestricted executive power."

The World Waits

William J. Kole and Matt Moore write for the Associated Press: "The world was riveted by the election drama unfolding Tuesday in the United States, inspired by the hope embodied by Barack Obama or simply relieved that -- whoever wins -- an administration that spawned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay was coming to an end.

"From Berlin's Brandenburg Gate to the small town of Obama, Japan, the globe geared up to celebrate a fresh start for America after eight wearisome years of George W. Bush."

Cheney Watch, Part One

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's vision for protecting two vast areas of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and mineral exploitation, a move that would constitute a major expansion of his environmental legacy, is running into dogged resistance both inside and outside the White House and has placed his wife and his vice president on opposite sides of the issue.

"With less than three months before Bush's term ends, his top deputies are scrambling to try to execute a plan that would shield some of the world's most diverse underwater ecosystems. The original plan, which included four potential 'marine monuments' and was well received by environmentalists, has already been scaled back.

"Vice President Cheney and some officials in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have argued that the plan could hurt the region's economy by barring fishing and energy exploration. First lady Laura Bush, along with a number of scientists and environmental advocates, has countered that preserving the region's natural attributes would attract tourism and burnish the president's record for history."

Cheney Watch, Part Two

So where is the vice president today?

Chris Cillizza blogs for The Washington Post: "The Vice President landed in Pierre, South Dakota, last night for his fifth annual hunting trip in the state. This time he is hunting near Gettysburg in the north-central part of the state. We hear he's staying at the Paul Nelson Farm. Nelson's son -- Ryan -- is a longtime aide to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

"In 2004, Cheney was joined by Thune and Scooter Libby on the hunt. Following the trip, Cheney checked into a Washington, D.C., hospital after experiencing shortness of breath. It turned out he had just caught a cold."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart sets up video of Cheney's McCain endorsement: "We knew it was going to happen: In the final days of the presidential campaign, you-know-who had to weigh in. The evil mastermind has resurfaced and released another grainy disturbing videotape featuring his sickly visage. . . .

"Vice President Cheney, endorsing John McCain: Clearly trying to influence the American election -- but which way?" Stewart notes that Cheney could barely get the words out without a coughing fit.

Cartoon Watch

Whatever else you can say about Bush, he continues to inspire some extraordinary political cartoons.

Here's what Mike Luckovich will miss about Bush (a New Yorker slideshow) , Tom Toles on the end of the Bush era, Jim Morin on what Bush and Cheney accomplished, Joel Pett on the morning after, Lee Judge on Bush's exit strategy, Jeff Danziger on Bush defeating McCain again, and Nick Anderson on the horror show.

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