Interviews September 2007

The World According to Rove

Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green discusses Karl Rove's political fantasies and fatal mistakes.
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You write that prior to Rove, realignment theory was used as a framework to analyze the past, but with Rove the theory seemed to become instructive, a strategy for the future. Can you talk more about this?

I think Rove was doing two things with realignment theory. One: I think he was showing his cards and letting it be known what he hoped to accomplish—clearly, he tried to make it happen and failed. But his other use was much more successful. One of Rove’s true talents was understanding and manipulating the media. What he managed to do by talking about 1896 and by talking about these political realignments in the 2000 election was to put forward a framework that was largely adopted by political reporters. So from a media spin perspective, I think realignment theory was useful for Rove.

As you note, Rove cited McKinley’s “inclusiveness,” yet took a very different tack himself, pushing for realignment through non-coalition building. Why?

I suspect that Rove would dispute the premise of that question and say that Bush did put together a new coalition, at least in the short term. After 2002, most of the Republican Party was part of this coalition. So were Democratic women—they became very concerned about security—and a lot of them went over to the Republican Party. I think independents, too, were part of the coalition.

Speaking more broadly, I think what Rove was referring to in his speech at the University of Utah was the idea of bringing in new groups for a permanent realignment. That was what he was trying to do with immigration reform, trying to bring Latinos; with the Faith Based Initiative to a lesser extent, trying to win over some African Americans; and with No Child Left Behind, trying to win over education voters and, I think, a majority of the women who traditionally would support Democrats. I think Rove was trying to create that wide-ranging coalition that McKinley did.

Of course that was the case in 2000, but do you think that was the case in 2004? It seemed that Rove was trying to attenuate and flesh out the natural base. But he effectively alienated swing voters, perhaps because he thought partisanship was hardening.

I think what actually happened were a couple things. Number one, it became clear that, like it or not, the Iraq War was going to be the defining issue of the 2004 election. And the first thing you have to do is win reelection. Number two, I think that Rove got seduced by the political power that 9/11 imparted to the Bush administration for a number of years after the attacks. He became a sort of Icarus figure in that sense, and once they did win reelection, two of the things he tried to put forward were security and immigration reform. Both of these failed dramatically, but all of this still shows that he hadn’t abandoned the dream of bringing more Latinos into the Republican Party.

What would Rove have done if 9/11 hadn't happened?

That is one of the big what-ifs of the Bush presidency. I suspect that without 9/11 as a realigning event and then as political cudgel, Rove, in order to pursue a vision of realignment, would have had to follow a model much closer to the one that Bush followed with No Child Left Behind.

Bush would have been forced to govern more along the lines of how he governed in Texas, where he did, incidentally, create a fairly permanent-seeming Republican majority.

Why was Rove so certain that Social Security was the key to realignment?

I think because it was the central pillar of the New Deal, and it’s incredibly popular. It is one of the dwindling examples of things that most people would say is good about government: Medicare, Social Security. If you care about the government providing those things, you tend to vote Democratic. So, if there’s a way to loosen that bond and to do away with it—or even to change its nature so it is more market-oriented and therefore favors Republicans more—then I think you go a long, long way toward undermining the Democratic Party for a long time.

If the Democrats win the White House in 2008 and maintain a majority in Congress, how will it affect the party?

I’m not willing to quite make that leap yet. I am part of probably a small minority that doesn’t yet believe that a Democratic president in 2008 is inevitable. If it did turn out that way, it would be profoundly interesting because of the fact that the majority would be due, one assumes, to an outright rejection of the Republican Party and not to anything that the democrats themselves have done. So it would obviously slam the door on any notion of Rove’s Republican realignment, but I don’t think it would herald any sort of permanent Democratic majority, that’s for sure.

What will Rove’s ultimate legacy be? Will he serve again as chief strategist to anyone?

I think that despite the administration’s current woes, Rove is a very talented political operative and campaign manager, and maybe he’s not a whole lot more than that. His goal was always to be this Mark Hanna figure— even something grander than that—to usher in through his own powers this realignment. Not only didn't that happen, but as the piece says, in pursuing it, Rove really went a long way toward helping to destroy the very administration that he worked in.

I think that his legacy will be more of a cautionary tale. I wouldn’t expect him to go on and work in another campaign. I would expect him instead to have a long, profiic career as a revisionist historian.

Jessica Pavone is a staff editor at The Atlantic.
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