The Republican Party finds itself as thoroughly out of power as at any point in modern times. It has a new role: that of the opposition party. But the G.O.P. is not fulfilling that role–most of the debate these days involves Democrats and independents. The Republicans focus their efforts on “tea tantrums,” filled with rage and few ideas. As the stalwart Hoosier Republican John Batchelor puts it:
The G.O.P. is a mummy-wrapped skeleton sitting in its own chilly mausoleum of bilious resentments and creepy sentimentality. What remains to call themselves Republicans are baldly badly educated or just prankish Confederate re-enactors—chubby men in gray and butternut suits with gold buttons and feather-tipped hats, clanking down stairs with shiny sabers. A handful of them are just boors from the South who look poorly on horseback and wave unread Bibles while calling for Billy Sunday to rise like the gold market.
But unlike the perennially disorganized Democrats, the Republicans are a party that craves leadership. Who can claim the mantle of leadership today? The defeat of 2008 left the party without a natural leader. That role would normally fall to the party’s presidential nominee, John McCain. But he, of course, was rejected by the nation at the polls. Moreover, he seems uninterested in the mantle of party leadership. The party house and senate leadership—George Hamilton look-alike John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell—likewise appear to have receded to the margins, letting pretenders like Eric Cantor and John Cornyn steal the limelight. There is also the ghost of leadership past, Newt Gingrich, preparing to make his triumphant re-entry like the man from Colombey-les-deux-Églises.
The White House, however, has chosen to anoint a different leadership for the Republicans—it points to the radio talk show world that provides the cerebrum, such as it is, of the current Republican world. Rush Limbaugh is Mr. Republican, they say, and the obsequious behavior of Republican elected officials confirms his extraordinary position. But for all of this, the “brains” of the Republican Party remain just where they have been for the last nine years: Karl Rove is the party’s driving force. And that explains why, notwithstanding two electoral defeats, the G.O.P. holds hard to the same course. Rove is the tactician who believes firmly in his own unerring accuracy. That indeed, was one unmistakable message of the Bush presidency.
Rove seems to be everywhere these days. He is a Fox commentator, and a regular writer for the Wall Street Journal. But he is also a key strategist for the Congressional G.O.P., guiding them on many issues, particularly dealings with the Justice Department of which he was once the master puppeteer. Michael Sheer of the Washington Post offers a review of the calculating Rove in opposition:
The onetime chief political adviser to the 43rd president has emerged as the most frequent critic of the 44th. In a weekly newspaper column and appearances as a Fox News analyst, Rove offers sometimes-caustic assessments of President Obama and his administration. During an interview this week on Fox, Rove called Vice President Biden “a serial exaggerator” and “a blowhard,” accusing him of making up a private meeting with Bush in the Oval Office.
The attack on Biden rests on an innocuous anecdote and reflects a deeper Rovian calculus: that Obama himself is simply too popular to take on at this point. Through the week, Rove was busy accusing Obama, now riding a wave of high popularity, of being divisive—in support of which he cited an April 2 Pew Research Poll showing that Republicans dislike Obama more intensely than any recent president. That was true, but of course Rove suppressed the poll’s major finding—that large numbers of Republicans are leaving the party over its bitterness and rancor, redefining themselves as independents or even as Democrats. Only 24 percent of respondents self-identified in the latest poll as Republicans, a modern low-water mark. Dig a little deeper by examining this Muhlenberg College study of how roughly a half million Pennsylvania Republicans switched their allegiance in the last years of the Bush presidency. This is the party that Karl Rove wrought: increasingly at the margins, isolated and angry.
Another incident from the past week showed Karl Rove’s essential creepiness. Politico reports on a confrontation at Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., last week. Rove was approached by the former chief of staff to Florida Congressman Tom Feeney, retired by the voters from his seat last November. Feeney had served as speaker of Florida’s house during the 2000 Bush–Gore recount and had been a key booster of the Bush efforts to block the recount. The staffer complained about Rove’s unkind comments about Feeney’s election defeat, and drew this retort from Bush’s “brain”: “I have a file on the things Tom Feeney said about George Bush.” “I have a file.”
Feeney should be glad that Rove is out of power. Otherwise no doubt he’d now be the target of a federal criminal investigation. And his staffer, too.