One of the interesting questions over the next couple of years will be how establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans will deal with each other, particularly since the latter are more concerned with ideological purity and ceaseless partisanship, even when it may not be strategically wise. Keep that question in mind as we ponder the present and future of Karl Rove.
When George W. Bush left the White House, Rove surely wondered where he could go from there. After having run a couple of presidential campaigns and worked as a top adviser in the White House, he certainly wasn't going to go back to writing candidates' direct-mail pieces. But then a few things happened to show him the way to the next phase of his career. First, Michael Steele got elected chairman of the Republican National Committee and quickly showed himself to be a buffoon whom major Republican donors couldn't trust with their money. Then the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, removed most of the rules restricting corporations and wealthy individuals from pouring cash into political campaigns.
So now, Rove sits at the head of a burgeoning new power center on the right, a group of organizations whose role will be to funnel all that money into the continuing goal of electing Republicans and advancing conservative policy goals, without the restrictions that still remain on parties and candidates. He can still guide the GOP, without having to be an official part of it.
But there's a problem. In the new political reality, there are multiple power centers, each with their own autonomy. When you have the White House, most everyone on your side will pretty much do what the president wants, even if sometimes reluctantly. Strategy can be dictated from above. But that's not the situation now for Republicans. And if someone wants to do something stupid, it's hard for Rove to stop them.
Like, for instance, Sarah Palin running for president. It's fair to say at this point that Rove is not a fan of Palin's. Look at what Rove told the UK Telegraph:
"With all due candour, appearing on your own reality show on the Discovery Channel, I am not certain how that fits in the American calculus of 'that helps me see you in the Oval Office'," Mr Rove told The Daily Telegraph in an interview.
He added that the promotional clip for Sarah Palin's Alaska could be especially detrimental to any political campaign. It features the mother of five in the great outdoors saying: "I would rather be doing this than in some stuffy old political office."
Mr Rove, who remains a major force on the US political scene, also implied that Mrs Palin lacked the stomach for the rigours of a presidential primary campaign, which will begin early next year before the first polls in 2012.
My close review of Palin's Facebook page and Twitter feed indicates she has yet to respond. But as we know, no criticism escapes Palin's notice, and my guess is this will make her want to run all the more. Rove may be a hard-core conservative, but he's also practical enough to know that nominating Palin would probably result in a Goldwater-style defeat for the GOP. He may be building his own machine, but he can't stop her from running. One thing that will be interesting to see, however, is what happens if the 2012 primaries start, and it looks like a battle between Palin and a more electable candidate like Mitt Romney. Will Rove unleash hell on her? I can't wait to find out.
-- Paul Waldman