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Goddangit, Baby, We're Making Good Time

“That’s the part that Karl doesn’t like,” says Tom Pauken, a conservative Republican in Texas who has been a longtime Bush antagonist and specifically a critic of Rove. “This whole tea-party thing, he can’t control.”

The Rove-Palin polarity isn’t just about ideology; it’s about the merger of politics and media, how it changes the form and function of politics itself and threatens to shift power away from power brokers like Karl Rove. Rove is skeptical of Palin’s TV show as a smart political move, but he’s just as disgusted that Palin didn’t go to Delaware to support O’Donnell’s candidacy.

“And why?” he says. “ ’Cause she’s off for God knows how many weeks, during the summer of a vital election year, in which candidates and party organizations are crying for her presence in races in order to raise money and visibility, and she’s spending—whatever—June, July, August, in Alaska doing a travelogue reality show.”

He says Palin’s people responded to his criticisms by suggesting they’d found a new way to campaign.

“Some of her people have talked to me and said, ‘Look, the old rules don’t apply,’ ” says Rove. “In essence, the candidate is the message. We’ll see. That’s an interesting view, and we’ll see how accurate it is.”

By operating without filters in a flattened media environment, Palin and the tea party have argued that power is now bottom-up, divorced from the top-down organizing structures Rove has functioned within for more than 30 years.

“For good and for ill, the party is becoming less institutionalized and more about personalities,” observes Steven Law. “With the decline of the Republican National Committee, the role that Sarah Palin has, the role that Karl has—it’s ­becoming somewhat personality, and not just personality but individual people: driven entrepreneurs, as opposed to institutions.”

This means that not only do Rove and Palin have loudspeakers, but so do gamier elements of the right-wing spectrum, like the “birthers” who believe that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. That’s put Rove in the position of having to play flag man on a busy tarmac, trying to steer his party away from the unelectable fringe. A few prominent Republicans I spoke with, especially former Bush officials, were thrilled that Rove finally said aloud what many were thinking: Palin was an embarrassment, even a threat to the party’s path back to power.

“He deserves a medal,” says one Republican operative who is friends with Rove. “This is a guy who understands what’s involved in being commander-in-chief. He looks at Sarah Palin and says, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ”

Meanwhile, however, Rove’s close friend and ally Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor and former Bush budget director who many believe Rove would like to see nominated, enraged the party’s base by suggesting a “truce” between centrists and the far right, with some factions protesting his appearance at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.

This is clearly unsettling for Rove, the self-taught historian of American politics who cut his teeth doing direct mail for campaigns, which shaped his view of the electorate as slivers of demographics to be divided and conquered with carefully manicured wedge issues like gay marriage. The shock-news approach of Palin and Michele Bachmann and pretty much every other Fox News candidate, which pegs TV ratings to polling and, perhaps, to votes, is anti-Rovean, possibly post-Rovean. And Rove, being Rove, doesn’t believe in post-Rove. “Things don’t change abruptly in politics,” he says.

For the moment, with Palin’s star dimming, Rove is looking, for now, like a winner. The old ways, if he can help it, will stand. And this puts Rove in a place he dearly loves to be: not merely in a position of power but also on the high moral ground, a place of … Courage and Consequence. It even allows Rove—Karl Rove!—to wonder aloud how politics got so lousy, so much like Sarah Palin. For the past few years, he says, he’s actually been stroking his chin over the question of who’s responsible for the coarsened state of politics: the attention-seeking politicians or the media that encourages them to goose their ratings?

“I don’t have a conclusive answer,” he says. “I got a prospective answer, which is it’s the politicians.”

“I want to go on the record saying definitively that I wasn’t even born at the time of the Roswell incident!”

Karl Rove, nearing the quail, is considering some of the recent headlines about himself, like the report that he’s been advising the Swedish prime minister and is secretly behind the prosecution of Wiki­Leaks founder Julian Assange, part of an effort to stop leaks of Bush-era secrets that would expose Rove’s nefarious dealings.

“No, that’s a complete fabrication,” he says.