Unlike his soon-to-be-ex-boss, Karl Rove has never claimed to be “a uniter, not a divider.” But with his announcement last week that he would depart the White House at the end of this month, Rove provoked an outpouring of political obituaries that were striking in their degree of essential agreement. All gave props to his tactical prowess and ruthless brilliance. All credited him with three successive, and increasingly improbable, Republican electoral triumphs in 2000, 2002, and 2004. And all concluded that he had failed utterly to achieve his ultimate goal: an enduring national political realignment in favor of his party. Indeed, the consensus view, even among conservatives, is that the GOP is far weaker at the end of the reign of Rove than it was at the beginning.
The only person who seems to demur at the last portion of this verdict is Turd Blossom himself. In a slew of exit interviews last week, Rove argued that his tenure advanced the cause of long-term Republican dominance and that history would judge George W. Bush kindly, particularly on Iraq. Much of what he had to say, of course, was either pure fantasy or self-justifying bullshit or a toxic combination of the two. But Rove also made three points, I think, of great relevance to the election that lies ahead—points that the Democrats currently celebrating his exit would do well to take seriously.
The first is that the 2006 midterm election was “really close,” as he put it, much closer than it appeared. Despite an unpopular war, a more unpopular president, and a rash of scandals among Republican incumbents, the margin by which Democrats took control of Congress was threadbare indeed: just 3,562 votes in the Montana race that tipped the balance in the Senate, and a total of 85,000 votes in the fifteen House contests that put the lower chamber in Democratic hands. No less a partisan than James Carville describes the outcome as “predictable and well within the range of historical norms”—not, that is, a landslide endorsement of his party or its policies.
The second point of Rove’s worth considering is one he stated bluntly to Mike Allen of The Politico. “The Democrats have a problem with national security,” he said. “Too many Democratic leaders are opposing policies that will lead to America’s success in the Middle East.” To Rove’s way of thinking, the Democratic opposition to Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and the party’s increasingly ardent get-out-now posture on the war echo the party’s dovish stance on Vietnam in the early seventies—which hung the albatross of foreign-policy weakness around its collective neck for years thereafter. And they will make whomever the Democrats pick as their nominee in 2008 vulnerable, once again, to Republican charges of pusillanimity.
Rove himself seems to have little doubt that the Democratic standard-bearer will be Hillary Clinton—the third point of his deserving of note. “She’s strong and she’s got the Establishment of the Democratic Party, and she benefits from having relatively weak or inexperienced opponents,” he opined. But Rove then went on to trash her in an interview with Rush Limbaugh: “She’s going into the general election with, depending on which poll you look at, high forties on the negative side and just below that on the positive side. And there’s nobody who has ever won the presidency who started out in that kind of position.”
Many Democrats will airily dismiss such talk as spin, as a desperate bid to perpetuate the illusion that all isn’t lost for the Republicans. But coming from a mind as Machiavellian as Rove’s, it’s more likely an attempt to bolster Clinton’s prospects by inciting support for her on the left—because in fact she is the opponent he believes the GOP stands the best chance of defeating. And the truth is that, for all his deviousness, Rove isn’t simply spreading manure. Despite the deftness of her campaign so far, Hillary remains a hugely polarizing figure. Her principal rivals, meanwhile, all have ample weaknesses for Rove’s successors to exploit. And their party remains less loved than tolerated, still not entirely trusted by voters to keep them safe in an age of terror.
All of which suggests that the 2008 campaign may prove to be a more close-run thing than many Democrats now expect. To win it will require more of the party and its nominee than Rovism in reverse: more than courting the base, turning out loyalists, and maintaining iron message discipline. What the 2006 election hinted at is that the country is ready to move past the era of divisiveness and stark red-blue polarities, toward some kind of consensus-building and reconciliation. The Democrat who can plausibly offer that will not just wind up in the White House. He or she will drive a stake through whatever remains of Rove’s conception of himself as someone who changed our politics forever.