The World According to Rove

Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green discusses Karl Rove's political fantasies and fatal mistakes.

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.

—Jessica Pavone

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.

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.