Monday, August 13, 2007

Goodbye to Bush's Brain

Listening to Karl Rove, a.k.a. "Bush's Brain," praise his nominal master upon announcing his imminent departure from the administration inspired at least one contrarian thought in me. Rove has been described by his political friends and enemies alike as politically gifted. The word "genius" is used repeatedly. I beg to differ.

There is no doubt that Rove works very hard, pays attention to detail, and is utterly ruthless in retail politics---well beyond the point of decency by some accounts. But on the most fundamental political question of the Bush presidency, Rove has been dead wrong. (I don't have in mind the Iraq war, for although I have little doubt that Rove was instrumental in the White House policy of conflating al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, the better to scare the electorate into voting Republican, the driving force behind the decision to go to war was pretty clearly the Cheney/Rumsfeld neocon operation.) Rove's fundamental error was in supposing that he could create a lasting Republican realignment by polarizing the electorate and mobilizing the conservative base. That strategy barely got Bush re-elected in 04, and made the administration and Republicans in Congress highly vulnerable when things went sour.

Consider a counter-history in which Bush sought to govern the country as the "compassionate conservative" he claimed to be, pursuing policies similar to those of his father (basically a moderate Republican despite occasional lip service to social conservatives) and Bill Clinton (a DLC Democrat). Without the personal baggage that Clinton dragged, and with the country rallying behind him post-9/11, Bush would have been an enormously popular figure. But Rove, who seems by nature a political fighter, chose polarization instead.

Perhaps none of Rove's decisions ultimately would have made much difference, once the war started to go badly. But perhaps not. A "uniter" Bush would have had real buy-in from Congress, so that Democrats (and a growing number of Republicans) would not have been able to distance themselves so easily from the White House policies.

This counter-factual world does not seem so implausible when one considers Bush's record as Texas Governor, his campaign rhetoric in 2000, and his temperament, which appears to incline him towards giving people the benefit of the doubt. (Remember when he looked into Putin's soul?) If I'm right that Rove bungled the opportunities presented by the Bush presidency, then liberals and conservatives alike are wrong to see Rove as effective, much less a political genius.


Benjam said...

rove is an evil genius. his job was solely to sell an inarticulate, uninformed candidate to the american public and got them to buy twice.

is he machiavellian? yep. a demagogue? certainly. did he cheat? for sure. did he debase the governmental processes? wthout doubt. someday we will know the true state of facts in the whitehouse. it will be even worse than any of us suspect.

history is likely to record bush 43 as a failed presidency, perhaps one of the worst ever. but rove's job was a salesman. and even with a rather dimwitted electorate as buyer, his ability to sell america a phony bill of goods twice shows just how good a salesman he was.

Paul said...

Firstly, it is a mistake to assume that Bush is just some idiot. I like to make fun of him too, but assuming he is stupid is just absolving him of everything his administration has done and continues to do. That Bush is dumb and America is dumber also tends to excuse the real conversation that should be going on surrounding the last 8 years - why were the Democrats so unsuccessful in replacing Bill Clinton. Making those sorts of assumptions is what keeps people like Bush in power.

Secondly, your point about Rove is essentially the point Michael was making, you just aren't taking it far enough. Yes; Rove had a strategy that was successful in bringing about the election of a republican president twice. Good for him, but a real political genius would have recognized the opportunity for a lasting republican rule. Rove's divisive strategy has essentially undone - and quite probably then some - the long vision work that Regan and Gingrich accomplished.

A smart salesman, to use your words, isn't worried about selling you a single item. She is looking to get you hooked on what she is selling for life.

Benjam said...


my point wasnt that rove is smart because he sold us a dumb guy, but that he sold us a guy who comes across as dumb. as to the idea that there could be a lasting or permanent republican majority is incomprensible in a two-party system, especially where parties are not programmatic. it was his pipe dream, but not a realistic standard of success. with all his political skills, imagine what bill clinton could have done if he hadnt been, um, distracted.

rove's main failure was perhaps his inability to sell the domestic agenda, even with a republican congress. at the same time, the agenda was so bad that most of those items were DOA. if he were indeed responsible for setting the policy agenda, then he really doesnt deserve the "genius" sobriquet. but unless he eats a baby on live TV, bush will probably name an airport in his honor.

egarber said...

Points taken, but I don't think it's that straightforward. Clearly, part of the reason Bush is suffering today is that he has alienated the conservative base to some degree -- on immigration, Medicare, etc. It's at least possible to argue that bucking his own base on these issues was an effort to "unite".

Of course, it might be that Rove thought he had enough political capital with die- hards to pursue these positions; perhaps he felt they'd look the other way on a few things in the larger effort to maintain the "permanent majority".

Sobek said...

"Clearly, part of the reason Bush is suffering today is that he has alienated the conservative base to some degree..."

I'd call that a large degree. Any time I see a post here criticizing the administration, even if I notice some factual or logical assertions I think are wrong, I end up shrugging and thinking, "eh, why should I bother?"

He lost the conservatives on immigration, and now we're pretty much just waiting for the clock to run out, just like the liberals. I guess we do have something in common...

egarber said...


It's interesting though, because polls still have him popular among Republicans. I'm thinking that's probably the evangelical Right though -- not so much traditional conservatives.

Sobek said...

All the conservative, hawkish bloggers I read hate him. Maybe "hate" is too strong a word -- I don't hate the guy, I just wish it would hurry up and be January, 2009 already.

Paul said...

It's a quote from Obama on Rove's departure.

In it he talks about needing to create a new type of politics (to combat the divisiveness of Rove's legacy).

The thing is, I think it is fairly clear that the Democrats are not so much wanting a "new type of politics" (or even the old type, where balance in the branches forced compromise or stagnation) but instead they are simply looking forward to using the Bush-created executive powers once they take office (assuming that they do) in 2009.

No one political act made that more clear, I think, than the changes made recently to FISA.

Additionally, the moves against Gonzalez have been largely all show. The acceptance of non-testimony "testimony" before congress of administrative personnel, etc.

From my view, most of this is just a waiting game. The Dems are not interested in making things better; they just want their turn.

Benjam said...

personally, i'm underwhelmed by obama. lots of people talk the "new direction" game but few walk the walk. i agree with the point about fisa, but the controversial items are not permanant. i think the hope is to pass fisa, innoculate themselves politically, and then change fisa when they control the executive branch. it is craven but part of me agrees with it strategically. the same reasoning forms the basis for refusing to impeach a president who has clearly committed impeachable offenses. i sort of agree with that strategy as well. where i draw the line is the dems' refusal to end the war by defunding it. i find that cowardice to be indefensible.

the whole country is on a countdown now, bush included. the only question remaining is whether bush tries to move on iran.

Sobek said...

"where i draw the line is the dems' refusal to end the war by defunding it. i find that cowardice to be indefensible."

I do, too, and I'm a war hawk. If you agree with the proposition that the war was mistaken in the first place, or should be abandoned now (for whatever reason), then leaving our soldiers there as cannon fodder -- simply because of fear of electoral backlash -- is the height of irresponsibility. Reid and Pelosi are literally trading American blood for votes.

Either bring them home now or unequivocally support them for the duration of the mission. A slow bleed has no strategic advantage other than in elections, and then only if people are too dumb to realize what the Dems are doing.

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