Gray Matter: 'Bush's Brain' Short-Circuits

©Jenny Warburg

Karl Rove, former political strategist to President George W. Bush, at a forum in 2012.

Karl Rove, the most brilliant political strategist of his generation, the man George W. Bush called "the Architect," the man Stephen Colbert immortalized as "Ham Rove," the pundit to whom Fox News viewers turn to give them the low-down, stuck his foot in it again. Should anyone really be surprised?

In case you've been in the desert on a vision quest, last week Rove implied, with some mangled facts, that Hillary Clinton might have lingering brain damage from the incident in 2012 when she suffered a concussion and had a blood clot removed. Democrats and even some Republicans got really mad, even as all agreed that the health of presidential candidates is a legitimate topic for discussion. Then over the weekend on Fox News Sunday, Rove was on the defensive but refused to back down.

"Look, I'm not questioning her health," he said, right after questioning her health. "What I'm questioning is, is whether or not it's a done deal that she's running. And she would not be human if she were not—if she did not take this into consideration." Everyone on the panel then agreed that Rove had done harm to the Republican cause, because this attack on Clinton made Rove look cruel and made her look like a victim.

Make no mistake, Karl Rove was an excellent political strategist back in the day, even if he was a particularly diabolical one (if you haven't read Joshua Green's great piece on Rove's early career in Texas, which featured things like spreading rumors that one client's opponent was a pedophile, do it now). But as a pundit, he's awful and always has been.

It's particularly problematic for Republicans, because Rove's punditry has always been crafted with the purpose of advancing GOP electoral fortunes, even more so than your average "strategist" who goes on TV to spout talking points. Rove always claims to have access to secret information or more insightful analysis than anyone else, yet time after time, he's just wrong. That's partly because his supposedly informed assessment is usually that things are going to turn out great for Republicans and terrible for Democrats. And because he holds such an exalted place on the right that when he says something stupid it generates a lot of negative attention. So while listening to Rove makes Fox's viewers feel informed, in the end he does the right far more harm than good.

Let's just take a quick review of some highlights:

  • Just before the 2006 midterm elections, Rove was confident Republicans would retain control of Congress, because he had analyzed all the races. "You may end up with a different math," he told NPR, "but you are entitled to your math and I'm entitled to THE math." Democrats took both houses in a historic sweep.
  • In late 2011 he predicted that Sarah Palin would enter the presidential race. Four years earlier he predicted that Hillary Clinton would be the Democrats' 2008 nominee.
  • He predicted that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 election by 3 percentage points while taking Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado, all states Obama won. And of course, there was the dramatic on-air meltdown on election night 2012, when he refused to accept the network's call that Ohio had gone to Obama.

Lots of pundits get things wrong, but Rove manages to combine wrongness with a contempt for those who disagree with him, and a tendency to get bombastic when subtlety is called for. For instance, in that Fox News Sunday discussion, he noted that Bill Clinton's campaign made some digs at Bob Dole's age in 1996. Clinton "ran for re-election by savaging Bob Dole. He ran television ad that said, the old ways don't work...Bob Dole looked like Methuselah in the Clinton TV ads." That's fair enough, but when Clinton's team did that, they at least made an effort to be circumspect about it. Unless I'm forgetting something, no Clinton adviser went on television and said, "You know what Bob Dole's problem is? The guy's too old!" If you want to get people talking about a sensitive topic, you don't bash them over the head with it (so to speak), as Rove did by talking about Clinton's "traumatic brain injury." A more clever strategist would realize that just invites a backlash.

I suppose one could argue that Rove's ham-handed approach to attacking Clinton is refreshingly forthright. But there's no doubt that he was trying to implement a strategy, and he didn't want the criticism that ensued, which shifted attention away from Clinton and on to him. Oh, and don't forget that American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the groups he co-founded to take down Barack Obama and other Democrats, flushed $174 million of their donors' money down the toilet in 2012. So maybe we can stop considering him such a political genius.

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