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Thoughts on the “Return” of Karl Rove

Annoying, impossible to eradicate and embarrassing to have in our American home, Karl Rove is a bedbug.

The New York Times is reporting this morning that Rove is back in charge of the Republican campaign war machine. Everyone thinks that “master strategists” – as the Times called Rove – earn such a title by mastering campaign strategy. Actually, what they do is stay out of races that can’t be won and put themselves in charge of races that are already won.

If you picked 50 consultants of all stripes and gave them a test, they’d all give the same answers. There are just not that many moving parts in politics. Strategically, it’s easier than checkers. It’s certainly not chess.

The successful consultants, however, do have something the also-rans don’t: the leverage of power. Usually it’s big money or, say, the vengeful Bush family and it’s army of ruthless operatives. They have the stroke to enforce discipline up and down the ranks. (I don’t mean this as an endorsement of top-down organization; bottom-up/top down would be more resilient, durable and democratic — we just haven’t seen it yet in contemporary politics.)

So, as we meditate today on what awful things we did in previous lifetimes to deserve the presence of a Rove in this one, we should keep a close eye on the secrets of his success:  pick only winnable races; don’t get involved unless you have the power of a dictator; toss all scruples aside.

A realist’s view of the authentic sources of Rove’s masterbategery might make his bites a little less itchy. My good friends Wayne Slater and James Moore, who wrote the best book on Rove, Bush’s Brain, disagree with me about this. They think he’s a genius; I think he’s an opportunistic bedbug who hides in the cuffs of the lowest common denominator until he finds just the right environment.

Speaking of bugs, did it really take genius to bug his own office back in 1986 and then sucker the press into writing that his candidate’s opponent had done it? That was a work of shameless deception on a par with a carnival barker’s promise of a live two-headed baby inside his smoky tent. It’s not like Rove discovered the equivalence of mass and energy.

Inflation, however, is the key to American celebrity. Hell, Davy Crockett sold the colorful lies about his abilities with more originality than Rove. But Americans care little about the truth behind a celebrity’s claims. If we did, there’d be no Sarah Palin. For that matter, there’d have been no George W. Bush.

Celebrity inflation, however, is as dangerous as it’s economic counterpart. Our values are worth less and sooner or later the phony bubbles pop. Part of President Obama’s problem is that when we got inside the tent the promised magic was missing. Since we thought he would single-handedly restore civil society and return the nation if not the world to the path toward democracy, Obama’s deflation was inevitable.

The Roves of the world avoid that fate by picking tests they can’t fail to pass. They only take electives, you might say.

Now, it’s going to be argued that the 2000 election was not such an easy test. It should have been, but it wasn’t. A political party has the advantage in the national election that follows the other party’s eight years of power. Nonetheless, Rove failed it. Bush lost the election only to have the decision of voters reversed by a Supreme Court beholding to Bush the Elder.

That points us back to the other key of consultant success: the power to enforce one’s will. And that Rove has. Give today’s freshmen statehouse consultant the ability to give or withhold millions or billions of dollars from candidates and they will be geniuses too.

After the 2000 election and in places where Democrats have a tough time winning, there was a common plaint on the left: “Where’s our Karl Rove?” We were asking the genie the wrong question, and like in all those old jokes, the genie turned the tables on us.

We should have been asking for help in creating a public opinion environment that favored progressive victories. We should have demanded that our wealthy contributors take the long view for once and invest in the kind of communications infrastructure and third-party advocacy structure Republicans built and used patiently for thirty years. So effective was it that a run-of-the-mill if ruthless operative could ride it to millennial success and be credited with Oz-like powers.

We didn’t look behind the curtain, though. Out of some screwy allegiance to celebrity culture, we’re in the habit of pretending there is no curtain. Dorothy and her friends did ask the wizard the right questions. They wanted a heart, a brain, courage. They wanted a home.

It turned out they had to give those gifts to themselves.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith