Missing Karl Rove

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After the election we're going to read a lot of analyses like this one from Mark McKinnon, arguing that second-guessing is unfair, and that in an impossible year for Republicans, Steve Schmidt and company did the absolute best they could. Today, before McCain roars back in the last three days and renders all the second-guessing moot (feeling jumpy, liberal America?), I want to draw a line in the sand and say No. Allowing that this was a hard time for a Republican to run for President, and allowing that Barack Obama might well have won the White House no matter what McCain did, it's still the case that this has been a lousy, lousy conservative campaign for the Presidency. (Poulos' line about how it's been consistently "flying beneath the pride of conservatives and Republicans" seems like a good way of putting it.) I've defended the McCain folks against the liberal hysteria that treats this as the Most Evil Right-Wing Campaign Ever, and I'd defend them again. But that famous line from Talleyrand - it was worse than a crime; it was a mistake - seems applicable here: It's been worse than an evil campaign; it's been a dumb one.

Not always and everywhere: There were moments when the frantic tactical improvisation worked out well (the "celebrity ad," for instance), and McCain's convention speech was well-crafted and well-aimed, and the Palin pick was the right kind of gamble, I think, even if it was taken without adequate preparation and/or consideration of what they might be getting themselves into. But in the aggregate ... well, I always thought that Karl Rove's political genius was overrated, and that huge political opportunities (to say nothing of policy opportunities) were left on the table during the campaigns of the Bush years. And obviously Rove, Ken Mehlman and company were running campaigns in considerably more favorable political environments. But watching the McCain-Palin ticket stagger through the closing months of this campaign, pinning their hopes on a working-class backlash against the progressive income tax in a state that no Republican has carried in twenty years, has given me a newfound appreciation for Rove's abilities: He might not have found a way to win in 2008, but I don't think his efforts would have been quite so embarrassing to watch.

Maybe I should insert a caveat here, something along the lines of "if McCain wins on Tuesday, Schmidt and Co. are geniuses after all." But the only way McCain wins, so far as I can tell, is if Russia invades Western Europe on Monday, or if the America that shows up to vote next week looks and votes not at all like the America that's been showing up in polls and surveys and every other indicator that political professionals have to work with. Maybe it will: Maybe there are unmappable effects at work in this race, and maybe after Tuesday the entire polling industry will have to close up shop in disgrace. But the job of a campaign is to put their candidate in a position to win with the electorate as it's possible to understand it, not with some hypothetical electorate that might emerge to save you from the fate that all the indicators predicted. Rove succeeded at that task; the McCain campaign appears to have failed. Which means that if they win on Tuesday, it won't be because they were better than we thought they were, but because they were luckier - luckier than we thought, and luckier, as well, than basically every Presidential campaign in the modern history of America.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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