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The Divider Behind the Uniter

Karl Rove and George Bush in Austin in 1999, on the road to the White House (AP).

As Karl Rove prepares to depart the White House after almost 15 years at the side of George W. Bush, he leaves behind an important question: Can anyone among the 2008 political strategists devise a game plan for winning tough campaigns that also contributes to successful governing? Rove's probable legacy has been well analyzed since word of his departure was published in Monday's Wall Street Journal. It is obviously mixed.

Over two decades, he helped convert Texas from a state dominated by Democrats to one now firmly in Republican hands. In the 1990s, he took a candidate with a good name-- Bush--but an indifferent record in private life and helped him demolish a popular incumbent governor, Ann Richards.

He built the strategy for winning a 2000 campaign in which, as the Bush team used to joke, required a campaign message of: "Things are good. Time for a change." He followed up that campaign with a 2004 reelection strategy built on the opposite theme: "Things are lousy. Stay the course."

In between those presidential campaigns, he injected the politics of terrorism into the 2002 midterm elections, which helped the Republican Party defy history and record gains in the House and Senate. But the strategy came at a significant cost of poisoning relationships between the parties that has deepened because of the war in Iraq and that has become part of Rove's legacy.

Rove will exit the White House remembered by his friends as one of the most effective political strategists of the past two decades, but branded by opponents with a reputation as the architect of the kind of divisive, partisan politics that have made Bush the most polarizing president in history.

Democrats long have argued that it was Bush--at Rove's encouragement--who squandered the national unity after terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. They point to Rove's speech to the Republican National Committee early 2002 in which he pointed to the war on terror as a political asset and a political weapon to be used in the upcoming campaign.

Rove would argue that the relations between the parties already were poisoned, that Democrats long before had decided they would not or could not work with the president. In a 50-50 nation and a country divided into red and blue states, according to this argument, the battle lines were drawn long before any of the nasty ads started airing in that campaign.

Much has been written overnight about the tactical skills Rove employed in Bush's campaigns--as well as his failure to achieve on his watch the creation of a durable Republican majority. Rove never has believed in big boom theory of realigning elections and saw as his goal steady expansion by the Republicans over a series of campaigns.

Whether 2006 marked an interruption in what has been a period of conservative expansion or the beginning of a pendulum swing back toward the left is part of what Campaign 2008 will reveal. At a minimum, 2006 marked a huge setback for the GOP, the president and Rove.

But election victories mean little without a successful governing strategy. Even after their 2004 reelection victory, Bush and Rove were unsuccessful in converting their success into popular support for a domestic agenda or the administration's policies in Iraq.

That is the biggest challenge facing all the candidates vying to succeed Bush--as well as the strategists who hope one day to be remembered as the most successful operatives of their generation.

Few things are more evident along the campaign trail than public disgust with politics in Washington. Every candidate in both major parties knows it and is trying to position him or herself as the person who can usher in a different style of governing.

All pay lip service to working together--and in almost the next breath utter words designed to drive a wedge into the electorate on every issue of importance--whether it is Republicans branding Democratic proposals on health care as socialized medicine or Democrats offering their loyalists on the left red meat rhetoric about the president and his chief political strategist.

Republican and Democratic candidates talk about national reconciliation but then run their primary campaigns from parallel universes, as if they live in different nations: Republicans speaking to Red America and Democrats speaking to Blue America. The strategists offer private reassurances that things will change once the nominations are secured and their candidates can focus on the center of the electorate and a more unifying message. Perhaps.

Whatever they all think about Karl Rove and the legacy he leaves behind, the question they have before them is: what next? At this point they judge success as winning--winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and the states that follow, then winning what could be another tough and negative general election.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent between now and November 2008 on negative ads and nasty messages. Will the winner emerge with a strategy and the political support to solve the conundrum of Iraq or fix a health care system that has left 45 million Americans without insurance or any of the other problems on the horizon? Or will they have run a campaign that puts winning first and governing last?

By Washington Post editors  |  August 14, 2007; 10:23 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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Dan Balz is spot-on.

Of course, Rove didn't invent hardball politics. He simply pushed the envelope further than his Republican predecessors might have thought possible. And most importantly, Rove reveled in his association with what an earlier generation might have deemed beyond the pale.

Rove relished his role as a cherubic bad boy. With each of his successes, he grew giddier. Much like a ten-year-old frying ants with a magnifying glass, Rove seemed to delight in the gruesome nature of his opponents' particular destruction, without either the wit or contrition of the late, archetypal dirty-trickster, Lee Atwater.

To many, Rove was overrated.

To us, Rove was a foil. He was "bad cop" to George W. Bush's "good cop." By goading the press into positioning Rove as a smirking version of "The Dark Lord," Rove successfully deflected attribution of his tactics to his clients - who where, after all, the ultimate "deciders" in each of Rove's political campaigns. Rove, his minions, and his imitators may have run roughshod over our electoral system. Rove may have tainted his profession, that of the paid political consultant, for generations to come. But, it was those who paid for his services who ought to be held accountable. For it is they who have reaped this acrid crop.

In the end, history may reduce Mr. Rove's importance to an asterisk. He was not the architect of the Republican's Southern Strategy that not only elected Richard Nixon, but forged a complete, and some may deem, permanent, political realignment of the South. Rove did not "strategerize" landslide victories for George W. Bush in either 2000 or 2004 as Ed Rollins did for Ronald Reagan in 1984 or as Bob Teeter and Lee Atwater did for George H.W. Bush in 1988 - under far harsher political climates. No, Rove's lasting mark will likely be the level of toxicity that currently corrodes the political profession - and American politics as a global brand. And, unlike the toxicity of his predecessors, we are deeply concerned that this Rovian toxicity is radioactive, with a half-life destined to last for countless generations.

Can our political culture "re-brand" itself? Yes. But, we must be vigilant in our expectations. We must demand true accountability from our leaders, while carefully filtering out the nonsensical jabs foisted upon us those who seek political advantage through the politics of personal destruction and not the critical engagement of political ideals. Is this overly altruistic? Absolutely. But, our nation was founded by pragmatic visionaries, not cynics. Our Founders understood history and human and political nature with tremendous depth - which is precisely the reason that our power is divided into three distinct branches and further subdivided by the people who hold office within those branches.

As James Madison writes in The Federalist, Number 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Perhaps, "If angels were to govern men," they might ensure that those who help to elect them rise to a similar standard of greatness. Honorable leadership is possible. But, first we must be willing to honor the process.

We can only pray that Mr. Rove, and his cynical, kindred spirits across the globe, will simply huff, take their marbles, and go home when they realize that the market for their brand of politics has shriveled in the face of true political debate.

At the very least, a little Lee Atwater-style repentance from Rove and his ilk might take us one step closer to a more idyllic political landscape. Just a hope.

Peter S. Cohl
The Political Brandwagon

Posted by: pscohl | August 15, 2007 6:50 AM | Report abuse

It would be more accurate to describe Karl Marx Rove as the career criminal that he is. Over the last decade, in addition to his admission before the Grand Jury of his crime of Treason in outing an active CIA operative and her worldwide network of intelligence assets - which probably led to at least 10 CIA assets dying, he has admitted to theft, illegal phone usage, and many other crimes.

The sooner he is sentenced and executed by firing squad, the better.

Posted by: WillSeattle | August 14, 2007 3:18 PM | Report abuse

It was not the 2000 election that really turned democrats bitter - it was the completely dishonest and partisan impeachment proceedings against Clinton and all the bogus investigations in late 90s which really started it. At least for me. I was outraged at what what Starr and the republicans did.

Then when Bush "won" the election in 2000 by 1 vote and, after lip service promises of bringing the nation together, proceeded to call democrats traitors and defeatists and insult after insult, with lie after lie thrown in.

That was it. There is no working with this guy. He's a bad president, and only stiff opposition will ameliorate the worst of the harm he has inflicted, and is still inflicting.

Rove won a couple of elections, but the blowback from the way he won them is going to be far more intense than he ever figured. He actually did the democrats a favor.

Posted by: Egilsson1 | August 14, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

The Clinton haters where led by the Rove coalition, or the vast RWC. It was that pure politics play, leading to an impeachment vote that divided the country and made the stealing of the 2000 election a galvanizing event for the left. The obvious lies and manipulations by the Rove machine to take power at any cost and to smear and destroy anyone who challenged them, has completely polarized this country. A uniter, not a divider? One of the first of many lies. Good riddance Karl, hope to see you in Jail.

Posted by: thebobbob | August 14, 2007 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz writes
"But election victories mean little without a successful governing strategy. Even after their 2004 reelection victory, Bush and Rove were unsuccessful in converting their success into popular support for a domestic agenda or the administration's policies in Iraq."

Makes a guy wonder when these people are going to start asking "what's the point?" As in, what's the point of achieving victory by driving wedges into the electorate, if it'll be impossible to build coalitions & get anything after the election?

This is a question the Clinton campaign should be asking itself.

Posted by: bsimon | August 14, 2007 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Balz, you contradict your first sentence with the rest of your article -- Rove might have devised a game plan to win tough elections, but it NEVER led to successful governing by any measurement. Rove's legacy is that he found a way to get power and to keep power -- with little or no regard to whether that power grab contributed to successful governing.

Posted by: drkvc | August 14, 2007 1:37 PM | Report abuse

As governor, Bush indeed worked with Democrats in Texas; it was a huge advantage toward thinking he could accomplish a bit of the same in DC. The fact is the nation was divided ever since Clinton in 1992, (remember he only won 42% of the votes, and praised the electoral college for his win.)

Again in 1996, more than 50% did not support Clinton for a second term. So that is my evidence the nation was divided before President Bush came into power.

It was the bitterness over the 2000 election, the views of hardliner Dems who kept stoking the anti-Bush fires of "he did not win the most votes", and "The Supreme Court put him in office, not the voters". These attitudes have remained in place by the bitter Dems, who failed to bring their boy Kerry into office in 2004.

So are we surprised about the venom and angst in DC now? NO!!! In fact, I am amazed that most of our nation is able to remain in business, and governing on issues which must be done.

Speaking of being divided, even the polls show how much negative feelings toward Hillary will be a factor in 2008. The next question should be, If the nation remains so divided, could President Hillary Clinton ever be able to govern for our nation? If she is the Democrats choice for their ticket, she is very likely that she would not going to win.

Posted by: dbu2709399aolcom | August 14, 2007 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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