Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Rove Legacy

Karl Rove never moved me all that much. He appeared to serve the role that any loyal presidential advisor should serve, which is to provide the best tactical and strategic advice to advance the political power of his boss, and that of the party. Rove's tenure in the White House is noncontroversial from my perspective.

What will be Rove's legacy?
This morning's Los Angeles Times provides a nice analysis:

In nearly a decade as the guiding political strategist for George W. Bush and the Republican Party, Karl Rove was often hailed as a genius. He masterminded Bush's rise to national prominence, directed his two winning presidential campaigns and wrote a campaign playbook for GOP success in Congress and statehouses across the country.

Some Republican strategists, including Rove himself, even dreamed that the system Rove created would make the party invincible, able to dominate American politics for decades.

Now, as Rove prepares to leave the White House at the end of the month, the party that bears his imprint faces a difficult question: Can "Rovism" survive Rove? Will Rove's unique combination of innovative campaign techniques and polarizing hardball tactics translate into long-term success for his party? Or has it seen its best days?

One thing seems clear: History will rank Rove as one of the most powerful political advisors of modern times. With his influence stretching beyond campaign strategy to policy decisions and the inner workings of the most prosaic of federal agencies, Rove ranks with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Harry Hopkins and President McKinley's Mark Hanna.

But looking to the 2008 elections and beyond, even some Republicans say that though some of Rove's techniques have revolutionized politics and changed the way both parties organize their campaigns, other parts of Rovism contained the seeds of its eventual destruction.

Rove's relentlessly polarizing tactics and his over-the-top use of government power for political purposes, critics say, were bound to wear out their welcome with a fundamentally pragmatic and moderate electorate.
Read the whole thing. The article continues with an interpretation of Bush's fortunes I've long held: The political difficulties of the Bush years - and those of the Republican Party going forward - rest not so much in the adminstration's "Great Society conservative" ideology and its failures, but rather in the rubble of America's liberation of Iraq.

More than anything else, the Iraq war will be the key determinant of the upcoming fortunes of the GOP. Had Iraq's reconstruction been better planned - with less disorder, looting, destruction, and death - the United States might have consolidated its lighting military victory and turned Iraq's regime change into an internationally popular war of liberation. In contrast, nearly five years of military struggle - which has allowed critiques to frame the war as a "disaster" and a "quagmire" - have left the GOP with an unnecessay foreign policy albatross.

In terms of political strategy, those faulting Rove's overreaching or his ideological inconsistencies would be well to remember that he deeply understood the power of partisanship as electoral strategy. I wince sometimes when I hear all this talk about "bipartisaship" or efforts to move beyond "political paralysis." But politics at its core is about achieving power and implementing policies based on a deep-seated set of partisan beliefs about the role of government.

Rove knew what hot-button socially conservative issues would fire up the base - abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights - and he pushed these to capture slim electoral Repubican majorities. This deft exploitation of wedge issues - and his brainy, back room "architect" role at the White House - is what drives liberals to demonize this adminstration with their radical hardline leftist attacks.

Karl Rove as presidential advisor
is no more evil than other successful campaign strategists from earlier periods of Democratic presidential power. For the left, he came to symbolize the Machiavellian inclination of the Bush "regime," and for that he'll forever remain in the liberal pantheon of "evil" operatives of the American political tradition.

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