‘Karl Rove targets attorney general race in California.” “Who’s afraid of Kamala Harris? Karl Rove!” “Karl Rove Attacks — We Need Your Help!” Karl Rove’s starring role in the 2010 California attorney general’s race came as a surprise to Karl Rove, who wasn’t actually involved in that particular contest. This happens with him all the time. For the Left, Rove served for many years as the go-to bogeyman, the marquee name with which to conjure before Democrats discovered Charles and David Koch. “Karl Rove” was how the Left pronounced “Satan.”
What has been peculiar in the years since then is Rove’s transformation from left-wing hate totem to right-wing hate totem, an all-purpose villain whose name is used liberally by tea-party groups and conservative populists raising funds for races in which he has no involvement. On and on they go: “Don’t let Karl Rove squish Allen West!” “Gingrich: We can’t let Karl Rove and a bunch of billionaires handpick GOP candidates for Senate.”
That’s a whole lot of hate for the last guy to manage a winning Republican presidential campaign.
“I’m a myth,” Rove says, snorting. “I’d have to be a super being to have done everything that’s attributed to me.”
For Democrats and for a very vocal portion of the Right, it’s a game of six degrees of separation, or sometimes fewer degrees: This group ran an ad in this race, and one of its donors is linked to that group, which has a connection to Karl Rove. Most often, that group is American Crossroads or Crossroads GPS, where Rove serves as an unpaid adviser, general-purpose lightning rod, and political bull’s-eye. But even if one assumes that everything Crossroads does is a Karl Rove project by proxy, the myth of its torpedoing conservative primary challengers on behalf of the hated Establishment is not very well supported by the evidence: In 2012, Crossroads spent 99 percent of its funds on the general election, not in the primaries. Rove’s Conservative Victory Project, greeted on the front page of the New York Times as a harbinger of serial primary bloodbaths within the GOP, has done basically nothing in 2014 — as of mid-October, it had not spent a dime on any race. There haven’t been that many competitive primaries. The civil war never happened, except on the Internet and on radio.
Crossroads did get involved in an upstate New York primary in which Elise Stefanik, a former White House staffer and Paul Ryan aide, beat two-time loser Matthew Doheny and appears to be on her way to becoming the youngest woman in Congress — that’s a nice thing for Republicans to be able to point to, and it’s a Democrat-held New York seat going Republican. Doheny is a former Wall Street guy, and Stefanik is, among other things, “a principled and articulate pro-life leader,” according to the Susan B. Anthony List, so not an obvious squish. That seems like the sort of thing that should be making conservatives happy.
About 48 hours after I emailed Rove to schedule an interview about this curious development, Brent Bozell published a piece in Politico under the unsubtle headline: “Karl Rove Is Ruining the GOP.” Rove is not enthusiastic about the prospect of discussing Bozell’s philippic, there being nothing to be gained by accepting an invitation to this particular pissing contest. But Bozell’s indictment was a strange one. He argues that Rove gives good political advice but that conservatives should ignore that advice because it comes from Karl Rove. He offers three data points to support his case: that Rove backed Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in Florida, and David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz in Texas. But in none of those cases is it obvious that the conventional wisdom on the right — that Karl Rove was instrumental in backing the so-called Establishment candidates — is in fact true.
The big independent expenditures in favor of David Dewhurst were organized not from Planet Rove but by people close to a conservative favorite, Governor Rick Perry, whose former chief of staff founded a group dedicated to the sole purpose of sending Dewhurst to the U.S. Senate. The late Bob Perry (no relation to the governor), a stalwart backer of conservative and Republican causes, including Crossroads, was a major donor. Rove, who had relationships with more than one person in that four-way primary, kept the race at arm’s length. Bob Perry, being a grown-up, donated to Ted Cruz after spending $600,000 against him in the primary. In Florida, Crossroads spent real money helping Marco Rubio to defeat Charlie Crist in the general.
In the 2004 Toomey–Specter showdown, Senator Specter was carried across the finish line not by Rove but by a much more considerable figure: President George W. Bush, his right flank bolstered by Rick Santorum. Rove did toe the line, as expected, and in January 2004 gave a speech in Pennsylvania in which he identified Arlen Specter as the “one person” Republicans had in mind for the Senate race. Specter at that point was a quarter-century Republican incumbent. Team Bush might be faulted for its excessive loyalty — or for its excessive deference to incumbents, if you prefer — and Specter, identified by National Review as the worst Republican senator, was an almost uniquely distasteful difference-splitter and time-server. But the historical record suggests that Rove’s role has been considerably more complicated than Bozell has it.
And Crossroads et al. have since become valuable Toomey supporters, which is why both Bozell and other friends of Toomey are talking about the very same thing that Toomey’s Democratic opponents in Pennsylvania are talking about: Karl Rove. E.g., “Pat Toomey Should Reject Karl Rove’s Dirty Tricks.”
What is happening here is not that difficult to understand, if you understand conservatives. There are basically three roles that people play in the conservative movement: You can be (1) Ramesh Ponnuru or Reihan Salam, thinking rigorously about politics and policy; you can be (2) Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, rallying the troops and providing frustrated foot-soldiers with catharsis; or you can be (3) Karl Rove, whose job it is to win elections. Conservatives are not very good at distinguishing between tacticians, eggheads, and entertainers, and though Rove is mainly in the tactician camp, his Fox News gig and his Wall Street Journal column put him in the public eye, an operative with one foot in the thinker-talker camp. And we conservatives have a hard time believing that our policy prescriptions and views are not as wildly popular as we’d like them to be, which is why every time a Republican loses an election, the Torquemadas among us begin their ritual denunciation: “We’d have won if only our guy had been pure enough, conservative enough, true-believing enough.” And then Republicans get buckets of campaign advice from people who have never had a hand in so much as a school-board election.
That fact is that in 2012, Republicans of all types lost, from tea-party guys such as Richard Mourdock to moderates such as Scott Brown. And Ronald Reagan himself could not have won the presidency as a Republican in 2008 with Christ Jesus as his running mate. The GOP was in bad odor, and not without some good reason.
The strange thing is that the party of free markets is having a hard time understanding an elementary concept from economics: the division of labor. Nobody is as good at what Rush Limbaugh does as Rush is, and nobody is as good at what Cato and AEI do as Cato and AEI are. But you don’t judge a guy like Karl Rove by whether he’s 100 percent right on immigration or chained-CPI, or by whether you like what you hear from him on Fox News. You judge him by his win-loss ratio. And his is pretty good.
Those conservatives who think that Karl Rove is what’s wrong with the Republican party should try getting a couple of presidents or governors elected first. Do keep us all informed about how that goes.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving editor at National Review.