It's no accident that Karl Rove was one of Richard Nixon's moles. Using techniques developed by his first mentor, dirty-tricks strategist Donald Segretti, Rove infiltrated Democratic organizations on behalf of Nixon's infamous 1972 campaign. Rove's formidable talents came to the attention of George Bush Senior, then incoming Republican National Committee chairman, and the rest is history. Seven presidential campaigns later, Rove masterminded a deluge of disinformation against John McCain, whose upset victory in New Hampshire had given him a shot at the Republican nomination. Word was spread among South Carolina voters that McCain had fathered a black daughter out of wedlock (McCain had, in fact, adopted a Bangladeshi girl), that McCain was a homosexual, that McCain's wife had a drug problem and so on.
Now Rove is masterminding the Bush administration's press strategy, but it's far more than a press strategy. It's the central strategy for how the public understands what George W. Bush is doing to and for America. In an important sense, it is the Bush presidency. Rove's methodology largely explains why Bush's popularity remains strong despite the unremittingly awful economy (mounting job losses, weak profits and a three-year stock-market slide) and despite the shambles of the administration's foreign policy (Osama bin Laden still at large, al-Qaeda as dangerous as ever, North Korea more menacing than ever, Israelis and Palestinians as far away from the bargaining table as ever, anti-Americanism rising across the globe and a pending war in Iraq lacking clear justification).
A midterm USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll had Bush's job approval rating falling to 58 percent, dropping below 60 percent for the first time since the September 11 attacks. Under these circumstances, any other president would be in danger of losing his job. But Rove has convinced the press, and therefore the American public, that this presidency is nearly invincible. He has done it with an ingenious blend of chicanery and obfuscation, aided by the Democrats' utter incapability of devising a coherent message in response.
Use whatever excuse is available at the time to justify the administration's long-term ideological agenda. Rove is adept at framing Bush's goals as responses to immediate problems, and orchestrating Republican and right-wing policy experts to give the policies enough patina of credibility to satisfy the media. A lousy economy? We need to eliminate taxes on dividends. Never mind that this supposed remedy has nothing to do with stimulating the economy; it's a "jobs and growth plan for the long term," whatever that means. The continuing threat of terrorism? We need to invade Iraq. Forget that Saddam Hussein has for years been at odds with al-Qaeda or that North Korea is a more potent and dangerous supplier of nuclear components; we must eliminate Hussein's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction before he uses them.
Count on the American public's (and the media's) inability to remember anything from one year to the next. The Rove machine gave Bush tough talking points on corporate fraud when the newspapers were full of Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom and Tyco, and when reporters were asking uncomfortable questions about Bush's and Cheney's own corporate dealings. Rove played for time, assuming that warmongering about Iraq (carefully orchestrated to begin just a few months before the midterm elections) would bury the issue. He was right. The administration dragged its feet on reform, and a year out almost nothing has changed. Another example: Rove sold the administration's $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001 as a way to spur the ailing economy. Obviously it had no such effect, but Rove assumed no one would remember. Right again. Now the White House is selling the administration's 2003 tax cut as a way to spur the ailing economy.
Keep everything under wraps. The only other administration in living memory as secretive as this one was -- no surprise -- Richard Nixon's. Whether it's Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, John Ashcroft's gag orders, the White House's anti-abortion strategy, its plan for gutting environmental protections and regulations, or its assault on civil liberties under the guise of homeland security, the public knows almost nothing about what's actually occurring. Leaks are rare. Information is parceled out carefully. Reporters who tell the story the way Rove would like it told (Bob Woodward) get special access. All others are kept in the dark.
Cut embarrassing players loose and pretend they're exceptions. Trent Lott was dead meat in the White House as soon as the press figured out that he meant what he said. Rove carefully let it be known that the administration supported Bill Frist for Senate majority leader. Rove also kept the attention focused on Lott and off the administration (Ashcroft's racist history as Missouri's attorney general, the administration's pending position on the Supreme Court case about affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Judge Charles Pickering's noisome record on civil rights and so on). Likewise, after Harvey Pitt dug himself into a hole at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rove abruptly cut off his lifeline and pretended the White House had wanted vigorous regulation all along.
Karl Rove is calling the shots. Richard Nixon would be proud. The rest of us should be appalled.