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The Failed Presidency of Karl Rove



Under the heading of unplanned ironies, consider the picture of Karl Rove—the man at the center of a Washington corruption storm coming out of the misuse of the Department of Justice for political purposes—telling the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot:

His biggest error, Mr. Rove says, was in not working soon enough to replace Republicans tainted by scandal.

Or could it be that he is actually acting upon this analysis?

The announcement of Rove’s departure at the end of the month provides a perfect juncture at which to assess Rove’s performance as the man behind the scenes in the Bush White House, or to use the Rovian image, as the twenty-first century’s Mark Hanna. With remarkable timing, Joshua Green hits the mark with his piece, entitled “The Rove Presidency,” in the just-out September issue of The Atlantic. I have often cited his classic article on Karl Rove in Alabama in the past few weeks; this article also delivers. In addition to critiquing Karl Rove’s performance in the White House, Green does a stellar job of reviewing the mainstream media’s coverage of Rove. And he’s far short of complimentary:

As recently as last fall, serious journalists were churning out soaring encomiums to Rove and his methods with titles like One Party Country and The Way to Win. In retrospect, everyone should have been focusing less on how those methods were used to win elections and more on why they couldn’t deliver once the elections were over.

Green gives us a couple of pages on Rove’s Mark Hanna fixation. Most Americans, of course, have never heard of Mark Hanna, and few would consider the McKinley presidency as the glory days of American politics. It was the peak of the Gilded Age, of course, and the era that Rove ushered in features remarkable parallels to that period. One above all others: a dramatic skewering of the distribution of the nation’s wealth, into the pockets of an elite that constitutes a fraction of the top one per cent of income earners. Rove believed that he was going to deliver historical realignment; as Green notes, he considered himself a figure of Hegelian world-historical significance.

That assessment may be correct. For Hegel a figure is of world-historical significance if he reflects the spirit of the time and forms a proper expression of that spirit. It can certainly be argued that both Karl Rove and Mark Hanna filled this role–but that’s not necessarily a positive assessment.

In the end a presidency is assessed on criteria other than the obvious ability to win elections. Even Rove understands this. “We’ve laid out an agenda, we’ve laid out a vision, and now people want to see results,” he said at a briefing at the Washington St. Regis. That means, for a “war president,” his conduct of a war, but also his implementation of domestic policy. The mismanagement of the war will certainly tar Bush and Rove, particularly because the accounts now emerging describe political know-it-alls who refused to take the advice and assessments of their generals in the field. In the post-9/11 world, a real leader would have seen the opening for bipartisanship and would have put the government on a solid foundation. However, for Karl Rove it was a tantalizing opportunity for partisanship run wild–the perfect chance to steamroller the opposition. Other political tacticians have used wars to silence and assail their domestic political opponents—indeed, the accounts of Greek antiquity are filled with such episodes—but America has had relatively little experience with this before Rove.

Rove will defend his signature domestic policies–lower taxes, compassionate conservatism, No Child Left Behind–but he’ll have a difficult time making a case with any of these. Lowering taxes has translated into historically unprecedented, crippling deficits. Compassionate conservativism is viewed even by Rove as a sort of joke, something used with carnival hucksterism to impress the Religious Right. And No Child Left Behind? At this point very few people who are serious about education have anything positive to say about it (see “The Big Enchilada,” from this month’s Harper’s)–although it sure seems to have been good to Neil Bush.

But Rove’s most controversial maneuver, and the one which ultimately brought him down, was his decision to “use the levers of government to create a realignment.” Bits and pieces of this strategem have flashed into view over the years, as in the extraordinary sessions of the Texas legislature used to redraw house district boundaries to allow for a pick up of a couple of extra seats. But the politicization of prosecutions, such as the use of the Justice Department under Rove’s prodding to bring down Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, is more characteristically Rovian maneuver. As Rove prepares to leave, Congressional investigators are bringing all of this into focus.

Green does a very skilled summation.

Why did so many people get Rove so wrong? One reason is that notwithstanding his pretensions to being a world-historic figure, Rove excelled at winning elections, which is, finally, how Washington keeps score. This leads to another reason: Journalists tend to admire tactics above all else. The books on Rove from last year dwell at length on his techniques and accept the premise of Republican dominance practically on tactical skill alone. A corollary to the Cult of the Consultant is the belief that winning an election—especially a tough one you weren’t expected to win—is proof of the ability to govern. But the two are wholly distinct enterprises.

Rove’s vindictiveness has also cowed his critics, at least for the time being. One reason his standing has not yet sunk as low as that of the rest of the Bush administration is his continuing ability to intimidate many of those in a position to criticize him. A Republican consultant who works downtown agreed to talk candidly for this article, but suggested that we have lunch across the river in Pentagon City, Virginia. He didn’t want to be overheard. Working with Rove, he explained, was difficult enough already: “You’re constantly confronting the big, booming voice of Oz.” . . .

Bush will leave behind a legacy long on ambition and short on positive results. History will draw many lessons from his presidency—about the danger of concentrating too much power in the hands of too few, about the risk of commingling politics and policy beyond a certain point, about the cost of constricting the channels of information to the Oval Office. More broadly, as the next group of presidential candidates and their gurus eases the current crew from the stage, Rove’s example should serve as a caution to politicians and journalists.

The Bush administration made a virtual religion of the belief that if you act boldly, others will follow in your wake. That certainly proved to be the case with Karl Rove, for a time. But for all the fascination with what Rove was doing and thinking, little attention was given to whether or not it was working and why. This neglect encompasses many people, though one person with far greater consequences than all the others. In the end, the verdict on George W. Bush may be as simple as this: He never questioned the big, booming voice of Oz, so he never saw the little man behind the curtain.

I think this gets it right, though I would come to a different set of words. The question is this: What do we mean by politics? Viewed properly, the way the great philosophers of man and state have viewed it from Aristotle onwards, politics is about the great issues of how humankind arranges its affairs. It is particularly about justice, about the establishment of social ideals, about the advancement of our species. But then we have Karl Rove’s conceptualization of politics, and we learn that it’s all about winning elections and the installation of a political lock on state power for the benefit of a voracious political party. That attitude comes very close to what the ancients meant when they used the words “tyrannical” and “corrupt.” And indeed it is.

The great failure of political analysis in America over the last six years is the arrival of a class of fools, the chattering class of political commentators, who share Karl Rove’s vision of what politics is all about. America as a nation has suffered immensely for this. And with Karl Rove’s demission, perhaps their time will also soon come.

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