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.