For the last eight years most American conservatives, especially the Christian right, have viewed Karl Rove as a political genius. President Bush himself called his closest political collaborator, “the architect” of his electoral victories. (Never mind that one political commentator yesterday said it would be more accurate to describe Rove as “the plumber”.)
Now that Rove is leaving the White House in a few days, it is natural to ask how these epithets stand up. The answer, not very well.
Rove’s claim to fame resides in two areas – electoral politics and domestic policy. It’s true that Rove helped Bush win two elections in Texas. He also helped him win the 2004 presidential election. (Unlike many commentators, I do not count the 2000 election against Gore. Except for an incomprehensible decision by a spooked Supreme Court, Bush lost the election.) The 2002 off-year elections were also a win for Rove-Bush.
From there it’s all down hill. Despite his predictions of a victory in 2006 Rove lost both houses of Congress to the Democrats. And almost 60 per cent of American voters think the Democrats will take back the White House next year.
In policy terms, Rove’s record is equally mixed. True he was succesfull in pushing through education reform with legislation setting up No Child Left Behind. But he failed miserably on efforts to reform medicare, social security, pensions and immigration.
On his most lofty goal, the construction of a permanent Republican majority, he failed miserably. The Democrats are now in the ascendancy on almost every political front.
Why did Rove fail? Because he thought you could ram through domestic legislation the way you won elections — by dividing and conquering and the politics of “personal destruction.” (Remember how he traduced John Kerry by smearing his Viet Nam war record.) Rove, like his boss, never thought he needed to reach out to Democrats in Congress. Instead of compromise (which is the hallmark of a working democracy), Rove thought he could bulldoze Congress. Again like his boss, Rove was a divider not a unifier.
There is one Rove legacy that will be evident in the coming presidential election – harsh negative advertising. It’s not much of a legacy.
In my opinion, Karl Rove was a nasty little man who had some electoral success but largely failed to deliver on policies that he and Bush had promised. He will go down in history as an influential presidential advisor whose influence, for the most party, had negative consequences.