The Divider Behind the Uniter
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?
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