You Don't Know Rove

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Once the purported puppetmaster of George W. Bush's White House, Karl Rove may be best known now as a Fox News talking head and Wall Street Journal op-ed writer. But behind the scenes, he's still pulling strings as the leader of one of the most important outside groups backing Republicans. Most cable news political "strategists" only strategize on TV, but, as Politico's Kenneth Vogel reports Tuesday, Rove also leads a conservative supergroup with the goal of making sure everyone's messages mesh.

Those attending Rove's Weaver Terrace Group meeting, Vogel reports, includes leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Job Security, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Republican Jewish Coalition. The point of the supergroup is to coordinate spending among ideologically allied groups. It has Fight Club-style rules, with an email to attendees linking to a clip of the movie in which Brad Pitt says, "The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club." (Didn't Alcoholics Anonymous have this rule first? Just sayin'.) But some attendees blabbed to Politico, including ATR's Grover Norquist, who said that while the groups had some "intramurals" during the primary, conservatives will let go of those spats and focus on beating President Obama this fall.

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Secret meetings of conservative all-stars -- many of which have secret donors! -- only adds to the image of Rove as a manipulator first, commentator second. In 2007, just after Rove left the White House, his criticism of Hillary Clinton launched a ton of op-eds and blog posts -- surely Rove was trying to sink Hillary because he thought it'd be easier to run against Obama. Unless! He's attacking Clinton because he only wants liberals to think Republicans are scared of her, but she'd actually be easier to beat! But that was before Citizens United make it possible to create groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Now we have some way to measure Rove's actions against his words -- whether all that speculating about his hidden meanings has any basis in reality. It's still early this election year, so there isn't that much evidence to work with. But here are a couple examples.

Public Rove: Last week, Rove wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying President Obama's decision to kill Osama bin Laden was no big deal. Rove included a partial quote from Bill Clinton that completely distorted the former president's meaning. Clinton: "When I saw what had happened, I thought to myself, `I hope that’s the call I would have made.’” (A compliment to Obama.) Rove's version of Clinton: 'Even President Bill Clinton says in the film “that’s the call I would have made.'" (A boast from Clinton bordering on an insult to Obama.)

Private Rove: This one is speculation, most of it from liberals, that Rove was telling Republicans how to run on foreign policy against Obama. "Keep an eye on this one, too, because it will also be central to GOP efforts to rewrite the history of the Obama presidency," The Washington Post's Greg Sargent wrote of the no-big-deal spin. "There is no disputing Karl Rove’s political skills. I don’t mean to say I admire him: He’s dedicated to causes I find repugnant. But when Mr. Rove strikes, you have to pay attention, because he’s wicked good -- in the Massachusetts and original sense of that word -- at playing the public," The New York TimesAndrew Rosenthal said. But the vast majority of both Crossroads' groups' ads are focused on the economy and taxes, not national security. But one does make a reference to this theme: an American Crossroads ad mocks Obama for saying his "legislative and foreign policy accomplishments" ranked only below Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ. It notes the foreign policy accomplishments of JFK and Reagan.

Public Rove: When Chrysler's Super Bowl half-time ad, "Halftime in America," seemed to fit nicely with Obama's economic message, Rove said he was outraged. "I was, frankly, offended by it," he said on Fox News. "It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising."

Private Rove: "I have no idea whether Rove really believes Chrysler produced that ad in order to do President Obama a political favor," The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn responded, saying Rove's comments aren't important "for what they say," but for "what they reveal." Cohn continued, "But the fact that he and other Republicans are so worked up could mean that they are scared -- not of the advertisement itself, but of the themes it contains." Cohn pointed out that the economy actually is getting better, especially in the Midwest and Michigan. But you can tell by Crossroads spending that Rove has long thought Obama was weak there. It's already spent $44,616 on anti-Obama ads in Columbus, Ohio this year. It's spending $506,647 to try to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the state. Rove starred in a Crossroads ad meant to rally Republicans that used lots of statistics to show Obama's weakness -- like that the president's approval rating among "Midwesterners [is] also down 26 points. Only 29 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy." The Nation's John Nichols speculated in October that Romney was visiting Ohio, which doesn't hold its primary till June, in order to win the support of Rove, who was focused on curbing union power there. Crossroads told The New York Times earlier this month it hoped to raise $300 million to fight the electoral power of labor groups.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.