What resulted was a preview of the GOP–versus–tea party civil war. Dave Carney, Perry’s top strategist, attacked Rove as a “country club” Republican. Conversely, Sarah Palin, tea-party heroine, endorsed Rick Perry, calling him a “true conservative.”
Perry handily destroyed Hutchison in the primary.
“The Bushes are out of contact with what Texas is about,” says a veteran Republican politico who is close friends with Rick Perry. “So is Karl.”
Rove is the embodiment of everything the tea party resents. He supported Bush’s decision to bail out the banks in 2008, a major bone of contention with deficit hawks. And it was Rove, as White House political adviser, who pushed for some of the most expensive Bush programs, like the Medicare-prescription-drug bill, the passage of which cornered the troublesome State of Florida for Bush in 2004 but has already cost more than $1 trillion. The national debt nearly doubled under Bush, from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion.
Rove knew he had to inoculate himself against tea-party insurrectionists if he was to keep his footing in the party. So his first, and defining, strategy idea for American Crossroads was to support a tea-party candidate in a marquee race: Sharron Angle, she of the “Second Amendment remedies,” against Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.
The investment was a classic Rovean gambit, a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose wager that put his new organization in the center of the action and on the right side, whichever side triumphed. If Angle won, American Crossroads had a huge Democratic pelt on the wall. If she lost, as she would, Rove’s skepticism of the tea party’s fringier elements would be proved correct. The bet was hedged. Rove, a realist prospecting for winners, his eyes fixed firmly on 2012, knew the deep-red base couldn’t win independents in a national race. As a former White House official who worked closely with Rove says, “Karl Rove is not a conservative. Karl Rove is a man who wins elections.”
"Holy crap!” says Rove, imitating Sarah Palin. “That fish hit my thigh!”
Then the Brain picked another no-brainer. In Delaware, where Obama’s health-care bill polled relatively well compared with other states, Rove had been supportive of centrist Republican Mike Castle. Castle was soundly beaten in the primary by tea-party insurgent Christine O’Donnell, whose colorful past, including a dalliance with witchcraft, exploded in the media. Rove shocked fellow Republicans by attacking her candidacy on Fox News. “It does conservatives little good,” he said, “to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for.”
Blowback was swift. A baffled Rush Limbaugh observed that if Rove “had just gotten this mad at Democrats during the Bush administration, why, who knows how things would be different today.”
But Rove was only ramping up. And when he swiped at the tea party in October, Limbaugh homed in like a laser on what he saw as Rove’s self-serving motives, saying that “nobody who makes a living generating political support, generating political donations, nobody in that business can point to the tea party and say, ‘I did it.’ So it’s a threat.”
Mike Huckabee, also expressing disappointment with Rove, went on a rant about GOP “elites” who were trying to keep out the riffraff.
Later, however, when O’Donnell lost, the Brain collected his winnings. To Huckabee’s comments, Rove crows, “That’s not what he said when he immediately sent me an e-mail and said he was misquoted!”
I ask Rove if he actually believed Huckabee.
“Look, Huckabee is a populist,” he says, “which means it’s convenient for him to find somebody to position himself in opposition to, but the fact of the matter is Huckabee is a presidential candidate who ran well in the early primaries and scores well in the presidential sweepstakes for 2012. If there’s an Establishment, Huckabee is part of it.”
When I first mention the words “Republican Establishment,” Rove heatedly dismisses the idea as a “crackpot notion right up there with the Bilderbergers and the Trilateral Commission.” The Republican factions involved in picking presidential nominees are too large and bumptious a group to make an imagined country-club cabal meaningful, he says.
“You could talk about an Establishment in the nineteen twenties, thirties, and forties, when the bosses got together and chose who the candidate for governor was going to be,” explains Rove. “But that ain’t the way that it operates.”
For the better part of a year, it’s been a truism that whoever wins the Republican nomination must somehow defeat, or at least co-opt, Sarah Palin or the forces that she represents. Rove took up the challenge both for tactical reasons and because Palin represents something dangerous to Karl Rove: political chaos.