Even by Washington standards, the rise and fall of Karl Rove has been a tragicomedy of epic (if not exactly mythic) proportions. Here was a self-taught political scientist who understood the larger sweep of history, a visionary strategist who’d earned the ear of a compliant president, who set out to create an ambitious and game-changing electoral legacy.
He had identified all of the elements needed to establish a political hegemony for his party equal to that of FDR or Reagan – and was aided in his moral urgency by the specter of a lethal outside enemy, the perfect call to action.
Working with rather thin material, he engineered a (relatively) decisive 2004 reelection campaign for President Bush and (slightly) stronger majorities in both houses of Congress. During his time in the White House, he had mapped out the ultimate crossover strategy: Win Latinos with immigration reform, left-of-center Democrats with education reform and the Medicare drug benefit, Evangelicals with faith-based programs, and the market-oriented right by taking Social Security private. Rewarded with authority for all domestic policy, he appeared – and certainly sounded – ready to remake the party and realign the political compass for at least a decade or two.
But when his moment arrived, just as Mr. Rove got the keys to the domestic-policy palace, he forgot to take off his muddy campaign boots. The Texas tread of Rove’s footprint were rightly feared – and revered – on the campaign trail. But making policy requires a much lighter step. Candid stories about his high-handed approach are now being widely traded. Unnamed White House senior staff and ranking members of the House and Senate of his own party are complaining to the press about being slighted, shunned, bulldozed, or bullied into playing ball his way. Imagine how the Democrats felt!
His long-lauded brilliance as campaign operative notwithstanding, Rove’s rise was improbable. Most presidents have been smart enough not to give purely political advisers a central role in policymaking. That’s because the very skills that make someone a kingmaker on a campaign can make him or her a Keystone Kop on the legislative beat.
While there have been other campaign hammers in recent memory that were at least as effective – Lee Atwater to the elder President Bush, James Carville to Bill Clinton – they were not rewarded with a consolidation of policymaking power the way Rove was. The presidents they worked for maintained a separation of powers on their staffs, an all-important set of checks and balances that moderate the hot-house atmosphere of the West Wing. They knew the difference between politics and policy, and who should be responsible for which.
The difference matters. Winning in politics means polarizing and mobilizing a base – getting the overqualified and underemployed fired up enough to pound the pavement, work the caucuses, lick the envelopes, and get folks to turn out at the primaries. It’s about crystallizing a message and relentless repetition. It’s long on reductive skill and often short on intellectual honesty. There are no shades of gray. Campaigns are messy, openly divisive, all-or-nothing battles with clear winners and losers. They hinge on making your opponent wrong. Rove was brilliant at politics.
Making policy is different. It means relentlessly working the politics of inclusion and compromise with 535 feudal lords on the Hill, multiple cabinet agencies, and innumerable interest groups and think tanks. It demands suffering fools gladly, holding your friends close – and your enemies closer – and engineering outcomes where everyone has to seem to be right and appear to win. Effective domestic-policy czars have the endurance and intelligence to work the gray areas and the humility to share the credit – even with the loyal opposition.
Governance, as the superset of politics and policy, demands the strength to force political change, the grace to accept compromise and policy imperfections, and the wisdom to know the difference. Rove, the consummate political operative, was long on the strength and short on the grace to accept compromise. Now we can only wish Bush had known the difference.
Political generals like Rove will always be with us. Whether you like them usually depends on whether they’re in your foxhole. But they bring something important to politics. They motivate hearts and minds to engage, something sorely needed in an electorate where only half of eligible voters turn out to elect presidents. But White House staff must be contained and controlled. And after the election of 2004, when great or even just good things were still possible, the Decider simply didn’t – or worse, couldn’t – discipline the man Democrats called the Divider.
In modern politics, the classic cautionary tale of imperious overreach and catastrophic failure is the story of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s attempt to reinvent healthcare behind closed doors. Now, Rove’s failed bid to be both political seer and policy czar is poised to become a new cult classic.
A suggestion for both parties: In Washington, obsession with creating a legacy stalls the very legislation that makes a real legacy possible. The result of overreach, inevitably, is opportunity lost – not simply for a party’s dominance, but for the country’s progress.
Originally appeared in the Monitor on September 3, 2007