Once upon a time, Karl Rove had a rapacious political fantasy: to construct a historic and lasting Republican coalition. That dream has been emphatically dashed: Rove announced early Monday that he’ll resign by month’s end, and his party has taken a terrible beating, both at the polls and in the press. In hindsight, it’s apparent that a combination of factors (shortsightedness, hubris, general mismanagement) led to his impending departure—and, by extension, to the harsh realities visited upon his fantasy.
Central to Rove’s audacious plan was the theory of electoral realignment, a notion of political science that identifies a fistful of decisive presidential elections as having yielded a lasting shift in ideology and voter loyalty. The 1896 election—in which William McKinley won the presidency (aided in no small part by his chief strategist, Mark Hanna, who exploited the nascent industrial economy to engineer a resounding and lasting victory)—was particularly instructive: Rove would use it as a virtual blueprint for how to build a modern-day Republican majority.
A key part of Rove’s strategy was to co-opt fundamentally Democratic initiatives—Social Security and education reform, for example—and use these to appeal to independent and undecided voters. (In so doing, he would also help the Republican Party pitch a bigger, better tent.) Another central tenet was that of executive mandate, which arrived—not a moment too soon for Rove’s purposes—in 2001, courtesy of 9/11.
It seemed to work for a while, with George W. Bush winning two general elections, and the GOP handily capturing a midterm. But Rove’s reading of history wasn’t quite right: What he didn’t understand (or perhaps understood too late) was that Hanna’s strategies, while fine for winning elections, were deficient on the policy front. What’s more, Rove’s governing tack was flawed: He eschewed coalition building (which worked so well for FDR vis à vis the New Deal) in favor of electorate splitting (focusing on, say, evangelicals instead of the Latino vote). As a result, Rove’s victories proved short-lived: Today’s Republican Party is in disarray, divided and imperiled; Bush continues to plummet in the polls; and Rove himself is abandoning ship.
It could now be argued that Rove’s grave miscalculations effectively impaired the whole of his agenda and accelerated—if not actually manufactured—the Republicans’ loss of credibility, their defeat in Congress, and their lack of majority.
In the latest Atlantic cover story, senior editor Joshua Green presciently examines Rove’s tactics—where they came from, how they were enacted, where they ultimately failed. I sat down with him on July 27th to discuss all things Rove and realignment.
Can you place Rove in context? You suggest that he is a great student of history, and a tactical genius, and certain parallels have been drawn between him and Mark Hanna. Does he have any counterparts today—on his side or across the aisle— or any direct predecessors?
I really don’t think Rove has any modern parallel. Rove is such a great reader—especially of the Progressive Era and the Gilded Age—that I think that he would see his predecessors as being the Mark Hanna types or Charles Dawes, the other McKinley acolyte. I think that the role he tried to carve out for himself is one that was a lot like these colossus figures. Back in that era, you could move politics more than you can in this day and age.
Initially, Rove foisted the 1896/Mark Hanna parallel on everybody. But when people pointed out that the caricature of that era had been Hanna pulling the marionette strings for McKinley, Rove jumped horses and began touting Charles Dawes. It is a bit of a debate among some journalists as to which one Rove wants to be.
What exactly is the distinction?
I guess the distinction would be that editorial cartoonists back at the time thought McKinley was a dummy and that Hanna was the smart guy pulling the strings. That became a little too easy a parallel, one that I think made Bush uncomfortable. So after touting this thing for several years, Rove then said, "I never said I wanted to be Mark Hanna. In fact, Charles Dawes is the guy that I really like." In a funny way, it reveals a bit about Rove’s ego, because Dawes went on to win a Nobel Prize and be a vice president. So this wasn't a nobody Rove was seeking to emulate.
Do you accept realignment theory? Or do you take the view that electoral politics shift back and forth, pendulum-like?
I’m not a political scientist, so I don’t view realignment theory as something you accept or you don’t accept. I view it as a way of looking at history, a way of looking at elections that does have some benefit. I don’t think it holds any great predictive powers, but I do think that the idea of going back and looking at these significant periods of one-party control can be a useful exercise for historians, for journalists, and for political junkies.