De-Rove-ations

Despite the polls I continue to predict, as I have for months, that Kerry will win the election handily. (And if the campaign in Kentucky continues on what appears to be its course, the Democrats will take the Senate as well.) If I'm right, one of the most important factors will be people who haven't voted recently, or perhaps ever, but decide to do so this time. These people aren't measured in some of the most popular polls, which is why I can continue to believe in this theory for at least a few more weeks. But I have conditioned my predictions on a reasonable set of events. Herein lies the tale.

The third time I saw a link to Joshua Green's Atlantic article “Karl Rove in a Corner”, I decided there must be something going on there even though I'm basically done with Rove. And sure enough, there are a number of keen insights, interesting anecdotes, and bits of suspicious behavior described. (My Bad Attitudes colleague Lead Balloons recently pointed to some dirty tricksters that are, I would guess, in Rove's army.)

Green dissects several campaigns in which Rove has participated. If you've followed Rove you'll recognize the style, the created chaos and concomitant destruction, without needing a scorecard:

Initially, things looked grim for Hooper. A circuit-court judge ruled that the absentee ballots should be counted, reasoning that voters' intent was the issue, and that by merely signing them, those who had cast them had "substantially complied" with the law. Hooper's lawyers appealed to a federal court. By Thanksgiving his campaign believed he was ahead — but also believed that the disputed absentee ballots, from heavily Democratic counties, would cost him the election. The campaign went so far as to sue every probate judge, circuit clerk, and sheriff in the state, alleging discrimination. Hooper continued to hold rallies throughout it all. On his behalf the business community bought ads in newspapers across the state that said, "They steal elections they don't like." Public opinion began tilting toward him.

Confuse and contrast, that's the trick.

One thing about Karl is, he doesn't see any limitations of the type generally referred to as moral or ethical, and legal seems to be a gray area. If the next step in the campaign is to “sue every probate judge, circuit clerk, and sheriff in the state, alleging discrimination”, that's what he does. He understands the power of image over substance.

Among Rove's other innovations was a savvy use of language, developed for speaking to the conservative base about judicial races. Candidates were to attack "liberal activist judges" and to present themselves as "people who will strictly interpret the law and not rewrite it from the bench." A former Rove staffer explained to me that the term "activist judges" motivates all sorts of people for very different reasons. If you're a religious conservative, he said, it means judges who established abortion rights or who interpret Massachusetts's equal-protection clause as applying to gays. If you're a business conservative, it means those who allow exorbitant jury awards. And in Alabama especially, the term conjures up those who forced integration. "The attraction of calling yourself a 'strict constructionist,'" as Rove's candidates did, this staffer explained, "is that you can attract business conservatives, social conservatives, and moderates who simply want a reasonable standard of justice."

Of course, let's be realistic: Rove is not the power. The power to play tricks, dirty or otherwise, comes from having money to spend on them. Filing suit against that many people has expenses, for example. It's not Rove's money that's accomplishing these tasks. He's the manager, the person trusted to use the money, accomplish the goal, and leave no tracks. The fixer. The Bush family seems to like fixers; they've had such a relationship with James Baker for a long time, for example. Perhaps this is why Bush administrations end up dealing with people like Ahmad Chalabi and Adnan Khashoggi: they recognize the type.

The main interest of the article arises from the possibly predictive nature of Rove's past. What is he likely to come up with in the last couple of weeks of what the polls are calling a tight race?

Clearly, there are many differences between the circumstances in which Rove has been victorious in the past and those he faces now. But that is no reason to discount his record. By any standard he is an extremely talented political strategist whose skill at understanding how to run campaigns and motivate voters would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them. Anyone who takes an honest look at his history will come away awed by Rove's power, when challenged, to draw on an animal ferocity that far exceeds the chest-thumping bravado common to professional political operatives. Having studied what happens when Karl Rove is cornered, I came away with two overriding impressions. One was a new appreciation for his mastery of campaigning. The other was astonishment at the degree to which, despite all that's been written about him, Rove's fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage.

An unsettling evaluation, in my view. To be that accomplished, that powerful, that tricky, that dishonest in fact, and yet to be relatively unknown: that's too great, and too unaccountable, a power to be granted to one person. And once again John Emerich Edward Dahlberg-Acton is relevant: all power corrupts.

In the opening pages of Bush's Brain, Wayne Slater describes an encounter with Rove while covering the 2000 campaign for the Dallas Morning News. Slater had written an article for that day's paper detailing Rove's history of dirty tricks, including a 1973 conference he had organized for young Republicans on how to orchestrate them. Rove was furious. "You're trying to ruin me!" Slater recalls him shouting. The anecdote points up one of the paradoxes of Rove's career. Articles like Slater's are surprisingly few, yet as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics — some of them breathtaking — as a matter of course.

So given the likelihood that some sort of dirty trick will take center stage between now and Election Day, I pose the questions of the following sections.

How will we recognize it?

This one's easy: it'll be obvious. Or perhaps I should say, they'll be obvious. Subtlety is not Karl's signature. Sleaze? Karl.

What can we do to innoculate the body politic?

This one's harder. But we can certainly start by talking about the subject loud and long, and before the election.

When I fall into conversations, I often ask people if they expect Osama (not Obama, he's going to win by forty points) to be pulled out of the hat just before the election, and everyone says yes. (Of course I live in relatively cynical San Francisco.) It seems to me that by bringing up the possibility ahead of time, we prepare the average non-wonkish citizen to receive what might be devastating news without the benefit of the big picture.

Of course, all Rove-watchers have noted the closing paragraph of Mike Allen's article in today's Post:

In Minnesota in mid-September, with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth tearing into Kerry and Democrats pushing new questions about Bush's National Guard service in an effort to temper his post-convention bounce, Rove appeared to recognize how far he was from his years-old ideal. "We're winning," he said. "But it's going to be an ugly 47 days."

Why would anyone consider Rove's tenure as resident genius a positive period in American political history?

It's already a cliché that the blogosphere is affecting the news and thus the national elections in real time—The New Yorker is talking about the issue, so it's officially been broached—and of course that particular effect is new. But despite the youth of the medium, many of its practitioners, information consumers as well as providers, have a sophisticated understanding of the major media and the methods of marketing. As bullshitters improve their skills, consumers improve their bullshit detectors. Progress is slow, but it does happen. I think we're gaining on them.

So here's my contention: that the sleazy and dishonest campaigning style of Rove's candidates educates constituents, who thus become inured to the assault. People are not that stupid. Although new lies can be invented, the problem is that when the electorate begins to recognize you as a liar, the new lies don't work like the old ones did.

And when the electorate starts to think of you as someone who compromised national security for fleeting political advantage, you're in trouble.

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