Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." -- Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects
The greatest trick Karl Rove ever pulled was convincing the world he was the Devil.
The real Karl Rove was a political strategist of decidedly ordinary ability. I'll never dispute his ruthlessness, but it's equally indisputable that not a single one of his masterstrokes achieved any tangible results.
Let's look at the record. Rove first appeared on the national stage as the political genius behind George Bush in roughly 1999. Rove attempted to sell Bush as the inevitable frontrunner for the Republican nomination. However, Bush came shockingly close to losing to an upstart Senator named John McCain who had barely any name recognition and next to no money, and whose own home-state Governor had endorsed Bush. Bush eventually defeated McCain on the strength of his fundraising ability and the connections he had inherited from his father, things Rove had nothing to do with.
Bush then barely triumphed over Al Gore in one of the closest elections in history, again because of his superiority in fundraising and because his opponent ran one of the most dysfunctional campaigns of all time. Rove had little to do with any of this.
In 2004, Bush defeated another lackluster Democratic candidate, John Kerry, partially because of a wickedly effective dirty trick, the campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. However, this campaign was run by a group of people who had nothing to do with Rove and whose leader, Jerome Corsi, was a member of the far-right Constitution Party and didn't answer to Rove in any way. Bush's most successful Rovian trick therefore had nothing to do with Rove at all.
Rove had some involvement with the Valerie Plame affair, in which the Bush administration attempted to shut up a low-ranking foreign service official whom no one was paying attention to by outing his wife as a CIA agent. Rove's plan backfired in his face, turned Joe Wilson into a national celebrity, gave him a perfect platform from which to launch further critiques of the Iraq War, and made Rove look like a grade-A jackass. Epic fail in the evil genius category.
Rove's most important secret plan was to maintain perpetual Republican control of Congress by pushing politically-motivated prosecutions of Democratic elected officials by the Justice Department. This plan was a tremendous failure that not only resulted in an expose that took down the Attorney General of the United States, but it also achieved not a single electoral victory for Republicans. Let's examine two cases in particular.
In New Mexico, Rove wanted U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to indict Patsy Madrid before she defeated Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Rove's strategy was to fire Iglesias when he refused to comply and replace him with a supportive political appointee. However, that process took several years and was woefully inadequate in discrediting Patsy Madrid in 2006 (Heather Wilson defeated her anyway). Not only was Madrid not indicted by Rove's flunkie in 2006, she still has not been indicted by that same U.S. attorney in 2009, though signs indicate that she soon will be. Had Madrid won the election in 2006, then, it would have taken Rove at least three years to have her removed from office through his master plan.
In what is generally considered Rove's most successful political prosecution, he railroaded former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman into federal prison on trumped-up corruption charges. However, Siegelman had already lost reelection when he was indicted, and there is no indication that he would have regained his seat in a rematch. What Rove did is to railroad a washed-up former elected official who had little chance of ever again holding public office.
Meanwhile, the one politician who was successfully run out of office on politically-motivated charges by a U.S. Attorney on Rove's watch was -- a Republican, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. So much for Rove's master plan.
The record shows that Karl Rove was a decidedly average, possibly well below average, political strategist. But Rove did one thing extraordinarily well: he made Democrats believe that he was a great strategist. He did more than that: he made them believe that he was invincible.
Look at this January 2003 article by Ron Suskind, a piece that played no small part in the making of the Rove mythos. It illustrates from first to last how Rove did it, how he created the image of himself as an unbeatable evil genius. There's Rove shouting at an aide, "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!" -- then flashing a smile and telling the reporter, "Come on in!" There's Rove telling all his friends from way back that he wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna, the greatest of the great evil strategists. There's John McCain telling Suskind that in Rove's absence, most people assumed, "Oh, he's out ruining careers." There's John Weaver, Rove's arch-nemesis in the Republican Party, spreading vague and disturbing rumors of a falling-out between himself and Rove back in the eighties. The best line comes from a White House insider just after the 2002 elections, when the Republicans picked up seats. "It’s unbelievable," says the source. "Could Karl be that smart? Could anyone?"
So there is the myth, and it's a doozy; but there too is the record, and it's pretty lackluster. Do you see the disconnect between them? This is what we historians do: we find a disconnect, a gap, a mistake, something that shouldn't be there but is, and explain it. The explanation for this one is clear. This is a man who spent his entire career making people think he was a monster, for good and all. Karl Rove is extraordinarily good at only one thing: spinning a story that instills irrational fear in others. In another life, he would have made a fine horror novelist: the the dark fantastic creatures that devour children in their beds at night are at home in his fevered mind. As a political strategist, he was no great shakes. But as a character out of his own terrifying imagination, he was a superstar. He had Democrats running around in circles for years, afraid of their own shadows, looking over their shoulders for fear that Karl Rove might be standing behind them. No plan was so good that Rove could not foil it; no plot was so secure that Rove could not divine it; no victory was so assured that Rove could not turn it into defeat. It was all poppycock of course, but in politics perception was reality, and that was the perception. Rove won elections not because he was a good strategist, but because he gave birth to today's weak-kneed Democratic political class.
Karl Rove indeed deserves a place in the pantheon of great American evil strategists, with the likes of Mark Hanna and Lee Atwater. Rove defeated Democrats not by out-organizing them as Hanna did, or by out-sliming them as Atwater did, but by convincing them he was the Devil. He then sat back and watched as they defeated themselves. In a way, Rove was the most insidious evil strategist of them all.