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An Architect’s Memoir

How Karl Rove drives ’em crazy.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Democrats and the media owe Rove one giant apology. But an apology is not forthcoming, for the simple reason that the liberal caricature of Rove is impervious to facts. Why does it have such staying power? My theory is that the cartoon is the only way Democrats can explain Rove’s success. Since liberals believe themselves to be intellectually and morally superior to conservatives, they naturally become confused whenever the voters opt for the stupid party. Sometimes liberals explain conservative victories by saying the voters don’t know their true interests, but most of the time the explanation is that the Republicans win because they play dirty.

Which is where Rove comes in. Between 2000 and 2005, the consultant and his most famous client flummoxed the opposition at every turn. First Rove and George W. Bush eked out an Electoral College victory, even though the incumbent president of the other party was popular, the budget was in surplus, and the country was enjoying apparent peace and prosperity. Then the newly elected president, with Rove at his side, embarked on an extraordinarily successful first term. The president had bipartisan support for policies ranging from tax cuts to the Patriot Act to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to No Child Left Behind to Medicare reform.

The president was relatively popular for most of his first term, at times extremely so. He was the first new president since Franklin Roosevelt to expand his congressional majority in the subsequent two elections. He won a clear victory over Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts by portraying the Democratic nominee as equivocal and weak on defense in a time of war. By Bush’s second inauguration, commentators were writing the epitaph of the Democratic party and the president was about to embark on ambitious plans to introduce personal retirement accounts into Social Security, modernize immigration law, and overhaul tax policy.

How did Bush and Rove achieve these victories? Not by sliming the opposition, ignoring dissenting views, and preaching to the choir. Yes, Bush, Rove, and the Republicans attacked Democrats when they thought it was justified. “To be successful,” Rove writes, “an attack must be perceived as both fair and relevant, backed with credible evidence, and launched at the right time.” But attacks are only part of the approach.

There are seven other “hallmarks of a ‘Rovian’ campaign.” Aspiring Roves, take note: Your candidate must have a big idea. He must talk about his ideas in a persistent and persuasive way. Historical data must drive the political strategy. The campaign must use computer modeling to identify and turn out supporters. You must set goals and check the campaign’s performance against those goals. The campaign must invest in volunteer-friendly technologies like text messaging. Finally, the campaign must vacuum up “knowledge and resources for the candidate”—i.e., nerds, volunteers, and of course, money.

That is how George W. Bush won in 2000 and grew his vote in 2004, and it is how Barack Obama won in 2008. Even so, Democrats attributed Bush’s successes to the Rove hobgoblin that haunted their imaginations. They grew determined to respond in kind. And the Democrats’ transformation—along with Hurricane Katrina, congressional corruption, a flawed strategy in Iraq, and the bursting of the housing bubble—made Bush’s second term terrible.

The space between Democratic rhetoric and Democratic behavior was huge. Even as they accused Bush of partisanship, the Democrats refused to negotiate on Social Security, blocked Republican judicial appointments, and blew up a tentative immigration compromise in 2007. Even as they said Bush politicized national security, the Democrats voted to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, opposed the surge, and demagogued in public the surveillance and interrogation techniques they had supported in confidence. 

Even as they zinged Rove for gutter politics, the Democrats called Bush an illegitimate president, a dictator, a liar and buffoon who was guilty of war crimes. They acted as grand inquisitors, launching inquiries that amounted to the criminalization of policy differences. When the 2008 election rolled around, they smeared John McCain with the lie that he wanted the war in Iraq to last a hundred years, and then unleashed a character assault on Sarah Palin unlike any other in recent memory. Seized by hatred and fury, the Democrats became the very object of their loathing.

“Rovian”? They should look in the mirror.

Matthew Continetti, associate editor of The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of  The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.

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