Decades from now, historians will have trouble fathoming why Karl Rove's contemporaries hailed him as a genius. An expert practitioner of wedge politics, in the tradition of Lee Atwater? Sure. But architect of an enduring Republican majority? The great realigner? What were the pundits of 2002 and 2004 smoking?
In fact, Rove exhibited astonishing blindness toward some of America's most basic political realities -- in particular, a pervasive economic insecurity that undercut the prospects of the Bush administration's program.
In a brilliant and fortuitously timed article on Rove in the new issue of the Atlantic, reporter Josh Green (a former American Prospect colleague of mine) notes that realignments in American politics tend to emerge from periods of wrenching change: the Depression of the '30s, the racial and cultural revolutions of the '60s. They are not willed by political consultants who fancy themselves deep thinkers.
Rove always believed that with the right mix of legislation and presidential leadership, constituencies could be moved from the Democratic to the Republican column, much like pieces on a chessboard. Green identifies five policy initiatives that Rove thought would create a Republican majority and that he and George W. Bush decided to pursue: establishing educational standards, pursuing faith-based initiatives, reforming immigration laws, creating health savings accounts and privatizing Social Security. Thus would the Republicans destroy teachers unions, mobilize the moralists and win over Hispanics. Thus would they break the link between the American people and government programs and create a world in which Americans' well-being and security depended almost entirely on the markets.
Early in Bill Clinton's presidency, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol had persuaded Republicans to oppose Clinton's health-care program on political grounds: The provision of universal health coverage would permanently help the Democrats and hence should be defeated. A couple of years later, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in tandem with Republican strategist Grover Norquist, began proclaiming that government programs such as Medicare and Social Security were artifacts of the industrial age, and, now that the economy had moved on to the information age, Americans would rely on the market for their security if only those creaking relics from the New Deal and the Great Society could be disposed of. By 2000, Rove and Bush had joined these peewee league intellectuals in arguing that the economic changes of our age required the lowering of the old safety nets.
In the wake of Bush's 2004 reelection, Green reports, Rove, newly promoted by Bush to domestic policy czar, concluded that the time for this realignment had come. Green documents Rove's mistakes as he set out to undo the major social legislation of the mid-20th century:
He assumed congressional and public support for policies on which Bush had not campaigned; his relations with Republican members of Congress were abysmal; his incessant campaigning against the Democrats ensured that there would be no bipartisan support for programs that entailed considerable political risk.
But Rove's miscalculations were actually more fundamental than those that Green enumerates. At bottom, he and Bush overlooked the epochal growth of economic insecurity in America. They refused to see that the very economic changes they celebrated had made Americans understandably nervous and pessimistic to an unprecedented extent about the nation's long-term economic prospects. And so, as employers were abandoning their provision of retirement benefits to employees, Bush and Rove called for abandoning the government's commitment as well. At a time when ordinary Americans' incomes were stagnating, and when growing numbers of Americans understood that they were in some nebulous competition with millions of lower-paid workers in other lands that the government seemed powerless to mitigate, Bush and Rove proposed legalizing the undocumented immigrants who had flowed across the border.
Could there have been a more profound misreading of the American temper? As political and policy czar rolled into one, Rove should have understood that Americans craved the security of a controllable border and a predictable and decent income. Instead, Rove's wish was father to the thought: Realignment required dismantling Democratic programs. It required winning more Hispanic voters (never mind that on economic issues, Hispanic voters are resoundingly liberal). It required the Rove program. Damn the torpedoes.
In the end, the Rove program for Bush's second term was stillborn for lack of support. And yet Rove and Bush seem to have bequeathed their tone-deafness on economic insecurity to a number of the Republicans seeking Bush's job. Rudy Giuliani, for example, has proposed a health-care plan modeled on Bush's: It has no expanded role for government, relies on the market and will not alter our current system or cover any additional Americans. Indeed, on health care, pensions, trade, the bargaining power of American workers, the affordability of higher education -- on a whole set of issues that shape Americans' lives -- the Republican field is largely silent. Rove retires; his cluelessness lives on.