Karl Rove Is Going to Haunt American Politics Forever

Karl Rove is, it's fair to say, the most famous political consultant of the modern age. There are a few others who achieved notoriety, like Lee Atwater, but none has had quite Rove's profile. He's admired and reviled, has had biographies written about him, and has been satirically immortalized by Stephen Colbert as a canned ham with glasses ("Ham Rove"). This came about partly because he was extremely successful at his craft, and because his success came out of some of the most ruthless and immoral tactics you could imagine, the kind of stuff you ordinarily only see in movies about politics but not in actual politics (see here for some details). But more than anything else, it was because the politician he drove to the White House was assumed by so many to be a dolt, and therefore the idea of Rove as the evil genius puppetmaster pulling all the strings made sense.

After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, most people in Rove's position would have left the actual work of politics, in the same way the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club show doesn't enter any more dog shows. Once you've stood on top of the mountain, the idea that you'll come back down and keep writing direct mail pieces for Senate candidates seems ridiculous. The logical career path would have been to become a "senior strategic advisor" or some such to Bank of America or G.E., getting a seven-figure salary for doing not much of anything beyond lunching with the CEO and giving your deep thoughts on the political situation to the board. You could go on Fox or the Sunday shows just to keep your profile up, but actually continuing to work in the rough-and-tumble would be beneath you.

But Rove stayed in the game, and when you do that, you risk damage to your reputation as all-knowing and all-seeing. Which is just what happened this past election. Rove's Crossroads GPS not only lost most of the races in which they were involved (not necessarily their fault; it was a Democratic year, after all), but his embarrassing performance on election night, insisting on Fox that the network had called Ohio too early and Mitt Romney might pull it out after all, no doubt made a lot of people say, "Hmm, maybe Rove isn't such a genius after all."

So how do you salvage things, and make sure that you can still raise the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars you need to be a player in the next election and the one after that? One of the best ways is to pick a fight with someone, which is what Rove did, starting a new group to prevent more Todd Akins from losing important seats for the GOP and giving the story of its creation to the hated New York Times. This made Tea Partiers very mad, leading many of them to denounce him. Michelle Cottle wonders whether a nasty internecine battle wasn't what Rove had in mind all along. Why? It's about the money:

Post-election, big Republican donors have been demanding answers as a condition of future support for various groups—and players in the money game report that there has been barking, profanity, and not-so-veiled threats. "I do think you had a lot of donors saying, 'You have to demonstrate you learned the lessons of the last campaign,'" says the Romney adviser. "Then they want to see measurable results toward that end. 'What are you doing to make sure you're not spending money the same old way?' "

Rove's donors were no exception to this trend, meaning he needed to do something to unruffle their feathers. Fast. "This is all about the donors," says another veteran strategist. And what better way to make a statement to donors than to formulate a brand-new strategy and splash it across the front page of the paper of record? Message: lessons learned. Course correction set. "This is a follow-the-shiny-ball strategy," the strategist argues. "It's smart to get donors focused on the future, focused on a new mission right away as opposed to waiting."

As for the backlash among purists, some political watchers assume this too is all part of the larger plan. How better to reassure anxious donors that their distaste for Akin-like candidates is shared than to poke a stick in the eye of the party's anti-establishment forces—and, for good measure, to do so in the newspaper that symbolizes all that hard-core conservatives despise? Rove isn't an idiot, Republicans point out. He may have simply calculated that it was worth the short-term beating in order to show his donors some love, and thus live to fight another day.

If you're going to raise large amounts of political money, one of the best ways is to convince donors they're part of something new, transformative, and exciting, a dramatic change that will remake the political landscape. People who raise money need to tell donors a story, explaining to them how they're part of history in the making. "Give me a whole lot of money so we can do the same old thing" isn't much of a story. And if you've just lost an election, when you go back to a donor who gave you $5 million a year ago, money that looks to have been flushed down the toilet, you need a new story to tell him. Rove's story today is essentially this: There's a fight going on for the soul of the Republican party, between the smart, hard-headed, realistic people who know how to win, and the crazy people who will drive the GOP off a cliff, leading to the election of more socialist radicals who would bring about horrors like the taxation of investment income on the same rate schedule as wage income, and if that dystopian nightmare is to be stopped, the first step is to rein in the Tea Party.

It's not a bad story, and I'm sure there are plenty of rich Republicans who believe it. The truth is that there really isn't a fight going on for the soul of the GOP—from a policy standpoint, what the Tea Party wants and what the pragmatists like Rove want are almost identical. The argument is just about tactics. Rove may not be able to raise the $175 million Crossroads did in 2012. But he'll do all right.

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