Karl Rove and the Dialectic of History.

August 19, 2007

Karl Rove and the Dialectic of History.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, August 19, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Today was “Karl Rove Day” on the talk shows. Rove resigned his position as Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House last week. There was discussion about the Rove legacy, about the condition of the Republican Party and about where this leaves Bush. Rove was described as follows: “Good at campaigning, bad at governing.” Another description: “A brilliant tactician working with the wrong strategy.” Why don’t we start with your reaction to that framing of his legacy: “Got the president elected, couldn’t create a lasting Republican majority.”

Newman: I don’t understand how people would know what his legacy is. He got someone elected twice. He’s influenced politics in this country, meaning both parties, enormously. What is the point of discussing a legacy an hour and a half after he leaves? I don’t get that.

Salit: Well, maybe the compulsion to do that is worth investigating. ‘Let’s decide what this thing was,’ as you say, 20 seconds after it happened.

Newman: Or before it’s finished

Salit: Before it’s finished, more importantly.

Newman: Everything has to be decided. I guess that’s the opinion makers’ job. They don’t have much faith in becoming.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: It’s not that you don’t have to make moves. But you often have to make moves based on a lack of information about all kinds of things, not the least of which is what’s becoming. Has Rove been an influential American? Obviously. Otherwise he wouldn’t get on the talk shows. I don’t know what more there is to say.

Salit: There are things one could observe relative to his career so far. For example, some pundit did point out that what he created that was of value to the Republican Party was a highly organized and well-funded national infrastructure. This isn’t fancy – just expensive. And if it’s well-produced, it’s very useful. The national database that the Republican Party created between 2000 and 2004, between the first and the second Bush win, is a political property of value. Anytime you go into a meeting or have a discussion with political professionals, Rove’s database is talked about like the holy grail. Rove had the foresight, and the organizational aptitude, and most importantly, the resources to invest in creating that. It went beyond the databases Richard Viguerie created for the Moral Majority. It was more broadly defined in terms of ideology. Rove used a combination of micro-targeting and mass marketing and that was the genius of his campaigning style. It had a big impact on how campaigns are run. I’ve sat in meetings with New York political professionals, with key Bloomberg people, for example, where we talked about replicating the Rove model in New York, meaning identifying and targeting people based on what you might call micro-issues, very particularized issues, rather than broad ideological adherence. Then you mobilize across these compartmentalized lines to bring people out to vote in an election. Rove was very adept at that. On the one hand, Rove is portrayed as a hardcore ideologue, as divisive, as a brass-knuckles guy. I’m sure that’s true in a lot of ways. But it’s also the case that his organizing did have a non-ideological aspect to it. What do I mean by that? It was rooted in consumer patterns, in cultural preferences as well as in how people felt about education, social security, the war and so forth. Do you think of him as an ideologue?

Newman: Well, I guess I’m old-fashioned. I think the country has to move to the right before modern technology can be used to elect George Bush. And, I think the things that moved the country to the right have little or nothing to do with Karl Rove. He capitalized extraordinarily well off of a minority movement. He put the leader of a minority movement into office. But I don’t think he’ll be remembered as someone who moved the country to the right.

Salit: So, the country had to move to the right for Rove to be able to execute the strategies that he did. But he can’t be held responsible or get the credit, depending on your view – for the entire chain of events in which the country moved to the right. What are the things, do you think, that moved the country in a more conservative direction? And what are Rove’s particular insights about that process?

Newman: Well, in a two party system, in a two party situation, you can’t separate out what moves this country to the right from the failure to move to the left.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: This is a culture, a society, which – in some ways – has fluctuated between the left and the right. Maybe this is my own bias, but I still think that a lot of what has moved this country in recent years to the right is the failure of the left – broadly defined – to actually come through with its promises. That failure meant the country was vulnerable to the right-wing continuing to grow. There are moral factors, religious factors, endless social and cultural factors, of course. But if you look at the political history of the 20 th century, during the years of FDR, the left was moving the president and government policy in a more radical and progressive direction. Whether you like it or not and whether you think some of it was not so good and some of it didn’t work, it’s still the case that the left was pushing the envelope.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But, the new left, broadly defined, has not had that degree of accomplishment. It’s actually been much more centrist, and in a certain sense, wishy-washy. On my own thesis, maybe the ultimate outcome of that was Clinton, the Clinton presidency, and Clintonism. In many ways, Clinton was much more the “compassionate conservative” than George Bush ever was. He was an enormously popular figure. I think Rove was able to shape that into a Republican version, i.e. George Bush. Together with his technical skills, Rove was able to create a Bush presidency. It was a remarkable victory, all things considered. There was no basis for thinking that he would do so well. Rove can take credit for that.

Salit: Rove himself said at the top of the interview with David Gregory on “Meet the Press” that in 2000 all the prognosticators said that there’s no way that Bush was going to get elected president. So Bush gets elected on a message of compassionate conservatism and Rove’s hope was that they could stitch together a durable Republican majority, a Republican coalition that included, for example, the Hispanic community. That was the game plan. But then 9/11 happened, and as Rove says, that changed everything. It changed the world, it changed politics, it changed government, it changed the American people, etc. Off of 9/11 the neo-cons, in and around the White House, made their move relative to the War on Terror, and suddenly we’re occupiers and we’re at war in the Middle East. As Rove says, the war became an unpopular war, and that’s the biggest problem that the Republicans now have. I wonder to what extent the whole misadventure in Iraq, as much as Rove defends it very vigorously, ended up being incompatible with the vision and the political framework that Rove was hoping to expand upon.

Newman: I don’t think it’s a question of “being incompatible with.” I think those are meta language terms that don’t add to the picture. If people come into power based on a certain plan rooted in expanding the influence of the conservative right, if you succeed at that, then you have to take the total consequences of that. It’s not a left or a right thing. If you open the door to liberals, as the New Deal coalition did, does that mean it was part of their plan to open the door to communistic ideas? No. Is that part of what happened? Yes. Because that’s how history works. If you open the door to the right by succeeding at compassionate conservatism, any number of things are going to happen, some of which you’re going to like or appraise positively, and some of which are not under your control.

Salit: True enough.

Newman: Karl Rove didn’t control everything. Will he defend the positions they took? Yes, of course. They produced a war that was dreadfully managed and didn’t go well for them politically. But that is the consequence of empowering the right, as Rove did. That dialectic is simply the dialectic of history. Julius Caesar goes out and wants to conquer the world. He wins a lot of battles. He comes back home and says, “I won all this land and I’ve become very, very popular, so I think I’ll become the ruler of the entire world.” And the next thing you know, he’s stabbed and he’s dead. Was that part of his plan? I doubt it. Was that a consequence of his plan? Not exactly. But it was one of the possibilities created by the success of what he did.

Salit: Success can create illusions.

Newman: You don’t have the control that you might like to have, or might imagine that you have, or thought you would have, because you were the person who did some particular thing. But, that’s not how the world works. People create certain things and then certain things happen off of that.

Salit: This happens in science all the time.

Newman: Some of the world’s greatest scientists created the foundations of nuclear energy, but they couldn’t control where that led. It led to nuclear weapons and then they suddenly – and I say this slightly facetiously – want to write a lot of letters and say ‘my God, we never thought that would happen.’ I’m not saying that they did think this was going to happen, nor am I saying they should approve of what happened, but it is still out of their control. When we create things, we also tend to create illusions about our capacity to control things over which we have no control. And that, as a species, tends to get us into lots of trouble.

Salit: Well said.

Newman: I don’t think Rove’s story is so unusual. How are people going to describe that, in terms of loyalty, in terms of strategic plans, in terms of friendship? Often descriptions of things have nothing to do with the thing they’re describing.

I was watching a television show recently, where people were talking in intricate detail about what’s happening in Iraq right now and about why the US has to be there. At some point I realized that I never once heard the word “oil.” And I thought, that’s kind of amazing. They’re succeeding in “de-oilifying” the whole situation in Iraq. Now, I’m not an advocate of the position that oil is the controlling factor, that it controls everything in the Middle East or in Iraq. It doesn’t. But, it’s a very critical factor certainly. Now, if you open up certain doors, if you empower some forces politically, it’s going to lead to oil interests playing a more central role, in ways over which you have little or no control. Rove was a major engineer who opened up some very extraordinary doors. Shall we blame him for everything that happened as a consequence of that? No. Shall we say that he succeeded in impacting on a whole bunch of political factors in the United States, a very important country in the world? Of course. Did he create the neo-cons? I don’t think so. But, did he make it possible for them to privilege certain interests? Of course, he did.

Salit: This is the dynamic, no matter left, center or right.

Newman: Of course. Was Jesse Ventura a real independent? In some sense, no. But, there were lots of people who were working to make the country more independent, so the door was opened for him, and he marched through. He became the governor of Minnesota.

Salit: If you look at this from another angle, you see this dynamic in the extreme reaction, what some would call “blowback.” from the Democrats in New York in response to the Bloomberg victory and the role that the Independence Party and independent voters and Lenora Fulani played in that. Their response, and this has been fairly explicit, was ‘this is a bad situation for us because this victory, occurring the way that it did, opens the door to certain things that the Independence Party and the independent movement and Lenora Fulani can do off of this.’

Newman: Bloomberg opened the door.

Salit: Exactly, Bloomberg opened the door.

Newman: And all we did was charge through.

Salit: Charge through, yes. And then you get this huge reaction where the Democratic Party tries to draw a line that holds onto Bloomberg – of course, they have to hold onto Bloomberg, he’s been elected, so there’s nothing they can do about that – but then they want to try to make sure that these outsider forces, which are in a position to gain off that, are cut off at the pass.

Newman: Yes. And that’s a fight. And you win or lose. You win this, you gain that, you lose something else.

Salit: Going back to Rove, he gave his characterization of the 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections, and he objected to David Gregory saying the Republican Party is unraveling and ‘aren’t you responsible for this?’ Rove took pains to get “beyond the hype.” While the Democrats did, of course, take control of Congress in 2006, first Rove focused on the historical precedent of how the White House always loses an average of 28 seats in Congress in the second midterm election, and they lost 30. But above and beyond that, he emphasized that the number of votes that decided the switch in control was a very small number, less than 1% of the total votes cast. In essence, he was making the point that whatever you say about the outcome, the fact remains that the country is still pretty evenly divided along political lines, something that everybody seems to be ignoring right now. The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats are going to take the White House in 2008, period. The point Rove was making about the division of the country is similar to things I’ve heard you say.

Newman: I agree with him. I think that the ’08 election is likely to be much closer than people expect. Do the Democrats have an advantage, a trend that they’re trying to take advantage of? Yes, they do. That’s about a lot of things, but it’s mainly about the war. And it mainly came from independents, as is always the case in history, where independents set the pace, and one or the other of the major parties fall in line. In this case, not surprisingly, it was the Democratic Party. Does it add up to a landslide electoral victory? No, I don’t believe so. It’s still early in the process. We still don’t know who the candidates are going to be. But, if it turns out to be a Giuliani-Clinton election, my prediction at this point (and obviously you can’t take into account all the things that will happen), if I were pushed to the wall to say what’s going to happen, I would say it’s going to be very close. The Democrats had a huge edge for almost half a century, and didn’t take full advantage of it. That created a vacuum into which the conservative right-wing moved. Rove was an engineer of how to do that, how to make it more broad-based, and I think he basically succeeded in that; maybe not in exactly the way he might like it to have. But, there’ve been Republican gains over the last 8 years – look at the Supreme Court, look at our tax policy. He’s helped to open the door to all that. But on the question of the country being fairly evenly divided – I basically agree with him on that score.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.