Politics & Policy

Rove in History

Assessing the presidential aide's place in history.

How will history judge Karl Rove? National Review Online asked a group of political observers and vets.

Jonah Goldberg

Obviously, Karl Rove’s historical standing will depend in large part on how Bush’s presidency is viewed. And that, in turn, depends largely on how Iraq works out. If Bush’s is deemed to be a “failed presidency” then Rove’s status as the political mastermind behind it will be something like the best navigator the Titanic ever had.

But there are some things you can’t take away from Rove, starting with the rise of Bush himself. Bush’s victory against Ann Richards, Gore and, particularly Kerry. Indeed, the more harshly you view Bush, the more impressive Rove’s accomplishments seem.

The question for conservatives, however, is more complicated. Rove promised a new era of Republican dominance, leaving the question vague about whether that would mean an era of conservative governance or an era of rightwing progressivism. Regardless, neither seem to be in the offing now (and if Republicans win in ‘08 it will be in spite of Bush’s record not because of it) and so by Rove’s own standard — and others’ — he fell short of the mark.

– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

John J. Pitney Jr.

In a famous 2001 essay, Michael Barone described the United States at a “49 percent nation.” Around the turn of the century, each party could count on slightly under half of the vote, so victory went to the side that could pad its margin just a little. Karl Rove was the master of the 49 percent nation. By mobilizing the base and scrounging some additional votes with high technology, he helped put the party over the top in 2002 and 2004. Indeed, some on the left despaired that he had rigged the system so that Republicans would never lose.

But Rove knew that the partisan balance would not last. With a growing Latino vote, Democrats would eventually gain the edge. Immigration reform, he reasoned, could blunt this advantage by dampening Latino hostility to the GOP.

Though the approach sounded reasonable, it ran into two problems. First, as James Gimpel explained here, very little of the Latino vote is actually in play. A bigger Latino voting population means more Democratic victories. Second, lenient immigration policy clashed with homeland security. How could Republicans claim to be the nation’s protectors while the administration was going slow on the border fence?

As the political tectonic plates continue to shift, Republicans will need new ways to build a winning coalition.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

PeteR Wehner

Karl Rove will be seen as one of the remarkable political strategists in modern American history. He helped turn Texas from a Democratic to a Republican state. Rove was captain of the helm for four general elections: the campaign to unseat Ann Richards; the reelection of Governor Bush; the first Bush run for President; and his reelection. All were impressive victories, with two of them underdog wins.

The GOP also did historically well in the 2002 midterm election. The only election Rove had a key role in that turned out poorly was the 2006 midterm — and even there, the results were in keeping with the historic losses of a presidential party in power. Rove, then, was five-for-six — which is a pretty good batting percentage in both baseball and politics.

What happened during the 2006 midterm election? Easy; Rove was dealt a terrible hand and played it as best he could. Iraq was a political ball-and-chain around the GOP. Add to that GOP congressional scandals and you had arguably the worst political environment since 1974. The losses, which were considerable, could have been much worse.

Substantively, Rove will be seen as a strong conservative voice in a conservative administration. He played a key role in cutting taxes, advancing a culture of life, helping shape the Supreme Court, tort reform, and much else. He was an advocate for accountability, markets and choice, and empowerment. And he was a powerful advocate for staying on offense in the war against jihadists. With the passage of time all of that, and more, will become clear.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Paul Weyrich

History will judge Karl Rove in the context that one can be philosophically sound and technologically perfect. Karl never bought into the Washington so called mainstream. At the same time, the people he appointed were all technologically sound so when Karl wanted to implement an idea, he had folks who knew what they were doing.

Of course neither he nor the movement won every battle, but we can thank him for the victories we did have. The media called him George Bush’s brain. That is utter nonsense. We must always remember that President Bush is a lot more intelligent and a great deal more understanding of politics than anyone we have had in some years. That is why Andy Card, who got along with Rove better than understood, said that while Karl is brilliant, no one is indispensable.

He will be missed. Fortunately the backbenches have been warming up these past few months. There are now people who can replace him and will do a credible job.

One final note. Every politician when he leaves office says he wants to spend more time with his family. But in the case of Rove, it is a statement of truth. His wife and son have made great sacrifices as husband and father was off on a 70-hour work schedule. Both Rove’s wife and son genuinely wanted to be with him more. His son, now going away to college, pleaded with Karl that he wanted to be close to his family so he could even come home on weekends. What father could resist that plea?

We live in difficult times to be sure. Rove understood that and adjusted to it. I suspect that we will see his fine hand in future presidential campaigns. Indeed, one day he may return to Washington. If he does, times will be much less difficult. Even Rove could not serve another tour of duty under these circumstances. We bid farewell to a most and unusual public servant. May God grant you many years!

– Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.

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