Why Karl Rove Uses Dirty Tricks: They Work

Karl Rove reportedly hinted that Hillary Clinton may have brain damage from a fall—then quickly backed away. His history suggests it's a calculated maneuver.
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Karl Rove now denies reports that he said Hillary Clinton may have brain damage. “I never used that phrase,” he said on Fox News. True. What Rove said was, “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

In other words, Rove didn’t say Hillary Clinton has brain damage. He hinted it, thus giving himself deniability while ensuring that the slur lingers in the public mind. Which is what he’s been doing his entire career.

In 2004, Joshua Green reported in The Atlantic that Texas insiders accused Rove of spreading allegations that his rival, Republican consultant John Weaver, had made a pass at a young man at a GOP event. Green also quoted an aide to a 1994 state Supreme Court candidate in Alabama who accused Rove of having quietly insinuated that his boss was a pedophile. Similarly, when George W. Bush ran for governor of Texas that same year, rumors swirled about the sexual orientation of incumbent Ann Richards. “No one ever traced the character assassination to Rove,” wrote Bush biographer Louis Dubose, “Yet no one doubts that Rove was behind it.” Most famously, when Bush was fighting for his life against a surging John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, fliers, emails, and push polls accused McCain of having fathered an African-American “love child” (he had actually adopted a girl from Bangladesh) and of suffering from mental instability as a result of his incarceration in Vietnam. McCain staffers, and McCain’s daughter, have accused Rove of orchestrating the rumors; Rove denies any involvement.

Why does Rove allegedly smear his opponents this way? Because it works. Consider the Clinton “brain damage” story. Right now, the press is slamming Rove for his vicious, outlandish comments. But they’re also talking about Clinton’s health problems as secretary of state, disrupting the story she wants to tell about her time in Foggy Bottom in her forthcoming memoir.

Assuming she runs for president, the press will investigate Clinton’s medical history and age no matter what Rove says. But he’s now planted questions—about the December 2012 blood clot that forced her into the hospital, and about her mental condition as she ages—that will lurk in journalists’ minds as they do that reporting. If she has a moment of Rick Perry-like forgetfulness sometime between now and the fall of 2016, Rove’s comments make it more likely that voters will wonder whether she’s still with it mentally.      

Political consultants create narratives about the candidates they want to defeat: Al Gore fudged the truth; John Kerry was an elitist; Barack Obama wasn’t fully American; Mitt Romney didn’t care about ordinary people. Once you kindle public suspicion about your opponent, it’s easy to keep throwing logs on the fire. On the eve of the memoir that will launch Hillary’s pre-campaign public relations blitz, Karl Rove is starting that process now, despite having no evidence for the storyline he wants to convey.

For better—but mostly for worse—campaign 2016 is already here.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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