With Carl M. Cannon
National Journal White House Correspondent
Thursday, March 13, 2003; Noon ET
What role is Karl Rove playing in the Bush administration? How has he made the transition from political consultant and campaign strategist to White House insider? Is Bush's decision to move toward war with or without the United Nations in America's long-term interests?
Carl M. Cannon, reporter and essayist for National Journal, was online to discuss the book "Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush," the looming war in Iraq and politics in general. 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.
New York, N.Y.: Karl Rove has this theory that "50-50 America" will soon end and ONE PARTY will emerge as the dominant political force in America for generations to come. Does he use this theory to persuade/intimidate rank and file Republicans in Government to follow the White House?
Carl M. Cannon: To New York, N.Y. I don't really believe that Rove thinks that the Republican Party will emerge as the ONE PARTY in this country. He might imply such things at fundraisers and such to rally the faithful, and he certainly does believe that there is a working conservative majority in this country. But if that's true -- and, personally, I'm not sure it is -- it's a very narrow working majority. Rove is aware of this; he and I have discussed it. As far as attempting to intimidate rank-and-file Republicans, well the overwhelming majority don't need that kind of coercion. According to the recent data in the Gallup Poll, something like 95 percent of self-identified GOPers think George W. Bush hung the moon.
Crownsville, Md.: Why do you think President Bush is pushing so hard for the war to take place before the summer? Why wouldn't he want to let the inspection process play out for a few more months in order to gain more international support for military action, which wouldn't face weather-related pressure after the summer is over? Do you think he's concerned about getting the war over before his re-election campaign begins, and that he wants the victory before the fall so he can more easily get his political agenda passed in the next Congress?
Carl M. Cannon: To Mr. or Ms. Crownsville: Keeping a huge invasion force hovering on ships in the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean Sea or cooling their jets inside tents in the sands of Arabia is not a tenable long-term military option. And my guess is that in the president's mind there is no reason to believe that the inspection process will lead to the building of more international support for invading Iraq; quite the contrary, the administration seems to be losing momentum on the international front daily. Nor do I believe that the legislative calendar on Capitol Hill has much to do with the timing of the impending war.
Fairfax, Va.: What do you see (in a nutshell) as being the Bush/Rove 2004 re-election strategy? Also, do you think there is any chance any Democrat can unseat Bush?
Carl M. Cannon: For Fairfax: In a nutshell, I'd say that the Bush/Rove strategy will be to present Bush as a strong leader who didn't blink when this nation was attacked who paid less attention to the polls than to his conscience will conducting foreign policy. He will recap for voters the legislative victories of the first term, which are primarily tax cuts and an ambitious education bill (although the Democrats believe it is under-funded), and he will say he's made good on his promise to restore dignity to the Oval Office while doing his part in trying to re-introduce civility into the nation's public discourse. As far as my believing that Democrats have any chance of beating him, him, well, I certainly do -- even if one stipulates to the accuracy of the image of Bush I mentioned enough. I say this for two reasons: The first is that, as I mentioned to the person from New York, I think the United States remains a Fifty-Fifty nation, and will for some time to come. I think ALL the presidential elections are going to be close for the foreseeable future. Second, no matter how well Bush performs under fire in the war on terror, and even if Iraq is a thriving democracy two years from now, Americans are also going to judge the president by his stewardship of the economy. The only time in the past century when a president was re-elected when the economy was underperfoming to the degree it is now was in 1956 when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in their rematch. But Bush isn't going to be facing Al Gore in 2004.
Washington, D.C.: I hear reports that say this administration, perhaps more than any other in the last 60 years, writes legislation through a political rather than policy lens. You've written extensively on Karl Rove, the architect of much of the administration's strategy. Is the influence of him (and other political figures) that great, or is it less than the conventional wisdom?
Carl M. Cannon: Washington D.C.: Karl Rove is the nexus of policy and politics in this White House, and he and others there certainly operate under the assumption that another Bush political advisor Mark McKinnon is correct when he says, "Good policy IS good politics." Thus, Karl Rove, whose original qualifications to be a Bush adviser is his background is the success of his direct mail campaigns for GOP candidates in Texas finds himself weighing in on such issues as stopping the use of Vieques Island for Navy target practice, implementing steel tariffs, and helping Bush formulate a response to the Pope on the priest molestation scandal. Having said all that, I'm not sure about the claim that this administration factors politics into its policy more than any White House going back 60 years. Actually, I'm not sure they're doing it any more than Bush's immediate predecessor.
East Lansing, Mich.: Is Karl Rove the kind of guy that will be a Bush-only political advisor, or do you see him in ten years advising other candidates of his political persuasion?
Carl M. Cannon: East Lansing: An interesting question. Rove told me that he has "a client base of one," but that's now and Bush won't be president forever. I'm not sure, however, that Rove will want to return to the same-old, same-old. It's hard for these guys to get themselves all juiced up for a primary campaign for, say, Texas's 30th congressional district when they've run the world. Rove himself talks about leaving Washington when Bush's tenure is over, and "hopefully," returning to Texas. But he hints at a job in academia, not returning to the political wars.
New York, N.Y.: My question is about Religion and the Bush Presidency. Is Karl Rove, himself, religious? How religious is he, what religion is he, how does it influence his political views, and above all else is he SINCERELY religious?
Carl M. Cannon: New York II: Bush, as you know, is a born-again Christian, as are many of his campaign, Austin, and White House advisers. But Rove is conspicuously different from this crowd. He mentioned to a New York Times reporter during the 2000 campaign that he admired Bush's deep faith, but had not found it himself. When Alexis Simendinger and I interviewed him for National Journal, we asked Rove what he meant by this, and he said he couldn't remember saying it. He then quipped that as an Episcopal he's not comfortable being demonstrative. The truth seems to be that Rove, who was not raised in a particularly religious household, is not too comfortable discussing his religious beliefs and is does not outwardly manifest them. His deepest feelings about this most private of matters, therefore, remain a bit of a mystery.
Vienna, Va.: During the past ten years or so, I've been alarmed at the success of what is termed "talk radio" and how it is used by the right wing.
My retired parents aren't the brightest people in the world. If they are told Daschle is Satan, they believe it without question. If they are told the French are anti-American, they totally agree. If they are told that Bush is inspired by God, they say amen.
They like to condense life's diversity into good and evil. Talk radio makes the process easier. My parents, unfortunately, are only two of many millions of people who resonate passionately with talk radio.
Question: Does Karl Rove influence the talk radio circuit?
Carl M. Cannon: Vienna: Someone asked me this very question -- does Rove influence conservative talk radio -- just yesterday. The short answer is, he doesn't have to, and the rise of the far-right commentators pre-dates Rove's own rise to power. But if you'll allow me, I'll offer a couple of other observations:
(1) The ascension to prominence of conservative talk radio is due, in no small part, to the fact that there are millions of listeners out there who have found the mainstream media too liberal -- and they, believe -- too biased for their tastes. I'm afraid they have a point, here.
(2) All conservative radio talkers are not alike. Some are well informed and thoughtful. Some are ignorant screamers. If your parents are listening to the former, and not the later, you can engage them in more nuanced debate, if you like.
(3) The French are pretty exasperating.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How is the Democratic Party going to survive against Rove and the Republicans? There has always been a fund raising imbalance that favors the Republicans. Now that Republicans control the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, there is less reasons for contributors to give to Democrats. Once political power is concentrated and the apparatus for campaigning strongly favors the party in control, how do Democrats win?
Carl M. Cannon: Harrisburg: The Democrats are going to be outspent in 2004, that's for sure. It's also their fault. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill the Democrats insisted on passing has ruled out "soft" money, which is to say the huge donation from corporate or individual fat-cats that had allowed the Democratic Party to all but close the traditional funding gap during the Clinton years. But with all due respect to former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh (who once pronounced money "the mother's milk" of politics), money isn't everything. You can check these numbers, 'cause they're off the top of my head, but I think that former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia, outspent his Republican challenger in 2002 $19 million to $3 million. And still lost.
Vienna, Va.: There was a controversy regarding some sort of memo outlining how Karl Rove wanted to utilize the war on terror politically, what is the truth surrounding that or is it all rumor?
Carl M. Cannon: Vienna: It wasn't a memo, it was a speech Rove gave to Republican Party chairmen in which he advocated prior to the 2002 mid-term elections that other Republicans stress Bush's qualities as commander-in-chief -- and seek to attach themselves to Bush. This is what the Republicans did, and it worked, in part because the Democrats in the Senate for reasons known only to them, refused to give Bush his Homeland Security bill before the November elections.
College Park, Md.: The media are liberal? This truism, repeated daily by so-called journalists in hairshirts, is behind the one-party state that Rove is aiming for. Did you see the "Press Conference" Bush gave? What liberal media is that?
Carl M. Cannon: College Park: Well, Bush got 18 or 19 questions, all of them on the war with Iraq, except for two on North Korea, and all of them expressing skepticism that the war would be successful or raising the objections of those who think it won't work. Would you rather we throw tomatoes at him? I think we could get fruit past the magnotometers...
And I'm not wearing a hairshit, I'm simply stating a fact. A poll was done prior to the 1992 campaign of the reporters covering that campaign. In that poll, 89 percent of them said they voted for Bill Clinton, who received 43.5 percent of the vote of the American voters. And on polls of issue after issue: affirmative action, gun control, abortion, national defense, reporters and editors of big-time media are far more liberal than the public. How much this affects coverage is worth a debate. Wondering if we're really more liberal than the people we write for is not.
Rochester, N.Y.: Is Karl Rove actively involved in advising the President on the diplomatic negotiations at the UN, or does he just stick to domestic politics?
Carl M. Cannon: Rochester: Rove told me, "I don't do intelligence." He also doesn't "do" Iraq. What he does do, however, is help the president frame his communications on all issues -- even Iraq.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Who in the Administration did you interview for the book?
Carl M. Cannon: Chevy Chase, Md. Not as many as I would have liked, as the publisher put us under tremendous time pressure. I had spent 90 minutes in a sit-down with Rove, however. And I cover the place daily. I tried to interview Bush, but wasn't successful...
Somewhere, USA: What about these polls showing that very large numbers of people in other countries (including Britain and Spain) regard Bush as a greater danger to world peace than Saddam?
Even if you don't take such things quite at face value, they have to be a concern. Whoever turns out to be right about Iraq, this level of anger at the U.S. troubles me. Does the administration have any interest in trying to patch things up with European some point?
More specifically, how can the Administration be so disciplined and "on-message" domestically and yet have assorted people (e.g. Rumsfeld) saying things that serve no purpose except to make people abroad even angrier?
Carl M. Cannon: Somewhere: Europe is divided, just as the United States is. Tony Blair is in huge trouble in his party, but the last poll I saw showed that 52 percent of Britons support the war in Iraq. What's interesting is that which countries are "for" the war and which are "against" it depends so much on who is in power. Public opinion in France isn't appreciably different on this question than in Italy, but the leaders are different. The same dynamic is true here. Perhaps if Al Gore was president....
And as far as Rumsfeld goes, I don't think he's said anything Bush would disagree with. Soothing feelings isn't going to be where it's at, I don't think, when Iraq is over. It will be a fiasco or a success, or somewhere in between and world leaders -- and world citizens -- will have to decide where they stand, but I think they will do so based on the results of the action more than on the rhetoric that preceeded it.
Arlington, Va.: Do you think Moran's comments will force him to resign? Do you think there will be a primary challenge in 2004?
washingtonpost.com: GOP Uses Remarks to Court Jews (Post, March 13, 2003)
Carl M. Cannon: Arlington: I don't think Jim Moran will resign from Congress. Even if you think his remarks were as patently offensive as Trent Lott's -- and I do -- remember, Lott wasn't forced to leave Congress, only to step down as Majority Leader. Moran himself made the point that the voters sent him to Congress, and they can decide when he leaves. I agree, which leads to your second question: Will the Dems field a primary candidate against him in 2004? My answer: Only if they want to keep the seat.
South Bend, Ind.: The Bush policy on Iraq seems to have energized the American left. It is organized, persistent and more visible than it has been for years. Isn't it quite possible that this activity will quickly be directed to such other issues as health care and economic policy? In short hasn't the extremism of Rove backfired in that the administration faces a determined opposition with substantial public support?
Carl M. Cannon: South Bend: I certainly wouldn't describe Bush's policies on Iraq as "extremism." I think that description, in fact, my be extremist. Nor would I use that language to characterize the Rove-driven domestic policies of this administration. I would agree with you, however, that Bush has energized the Left. This began in Florida, it continues today. And yes, this passion could -- and should -- be applied to advocacy for progressive health care and economic policies. Yes, absolutely. And pass the word that working for liberal legislation is better than character assassination any day!
Philadelphia, Pa.: How would you rate the Bush presidency at this point?
Carl M. Cannon: Philly: So far, he's done what he set out to do and has surpassed expectations, I would say. But the true test is ahead of him. That test is Iraq. Bush is staking everything on it, it seems to me, and it will be fair to judge him by the results.
Bainbridge, Ga.: Did the Founding Fathers really have in mine unelected operatives like Rove, Perle, and Wolfowitz writing and implementing policy? I understand that the world has changed, but don't we miss something when the elected official is little more than a spokesperson for a set of ideas?
Carl M. Cannon: Bainbridge: This is the last question I'll be answering today folks. The others are good, too, but I've to run. If the Washington Post folks want me back, I'll start with those questions I left unanswered. Anyway, Bainbridge, hell no, the Founders didn't envision Karl Rove. They didn't even want political parties! But look, this system has been around awhile. When FDR was elected, he brought his political adviser, James Farley to Washington and installed him as postmaster general. It sure wasn't because Farley knew anything about the mails. And so we judge Bush not just by the performance of the economy, and his press conferences, but by the people he brings with him. He deserves credit if they are wise, blame if they are fools. But never make the mistake of believing the president is not fully in charge. That's one aspect of the job that is unchanged, and that the Founders would recognize immediately. It's George W. Bush's White House, for good winds or bad winds. Thanks, CmC
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company