A lot of Rove’s friends tell me he’s misunderstood. Even enemies say so. Rove is not evil, says former Bush campaign strategist and apostate Matthew Dowd, nor is he a genius. Instead, he says, Rove is a self-marketer of his own reputation.
“What happened in 2010 had nothing to do with Karl and nothing to do with American Crossroads and everything to do with the political environment,” Dowd says. “Karl maintains a lot of the myth in a world not based totally in facts.”
The same, he says, goes for the 2012 presidential election. “The reason why a Republican is nominated won’t be because of Karl,” he says. “That doesn’t mean he won’t create a narrative.”
But creating a narrative is perhaps Rove’s greatest talent. He rewrote a Connecticut blue blood as a Texas good ol’ boy, a persona Rove himself inhabits like a Method actor, gamely dropping red-state signifiers like “Git’r done!” And as Republican candidates come and go, Rove will act as a narrator on TV while he kicks up millions for American Crossroads.
But Rove’s machine is already facing a competing brand: the Koch brothers, David and Charles, the major tea-party underwriters who are promising to raise $88 million for the presidential elections, posing a populist alternative to Rove’s Establishment stronghold and making inroads with their support of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and funding of counterprotests there. It’s not inconsequential: Major Republican donors told me they were disappointed by Rove’s comments about Palin. “He’s not right all the time,” one of them noted.
In theory, Koch’s group and Rove’s group could form an unholy alliance in a general election. But Rove very clearly leaves the door open to an intervention in the primaries, before a nominee is actually chosen. If his Crossroads donors object to a candidate they don’t believe could take the general election against Obama, he says, Rove’s group might step in.
“Yeah, I could see that,” says Rove. “Right now, I don’t think it’s gonna happen, but I could see it. But again, this thing is gonna play out.”
Rove declines to say whether he’d advise a candidate in the primaries. But Mary Matalin paints the candidates as sorry losers clawing at Rove’s door.“There is not one of those twelve wannabes who wouldn’t cut off an arm to have Karl be their architect,” she says. “They’d take rumbling from some of their flank. But I defy any one of them to say, ‘If Karl was available to be my consultant on my 2012 race, I would decline his assistance.’ ”
But something like the opposite might be true. Does the next candidate of the GOP want the mark of “Bush’s Brain” on their candidacy? To alienate the tea party by cozying up to the elitist Rasputin?
Certainly not Sarah Palin. “Of all the potential candidates, Governor Palin would no doubt be the one desiring new energy and ideas,” says her chief of staff Michael Glassner, “and, refreshingly, hiring advisers who aren’t entrenched in any political machine.”
It’s early yet, and Rove is keeping his cards close and his options open. When I ask him which of the prospective candidates is the purest ideological heir to Bush, he won’t answer. “I don’t think that’s the right question,” he says, waving it away. But later, in an unscripted moment worthy of Palin, Rove does tell me about his dream candidate, a would-be “incredible” president of the United States, the one person he’d support without reservation, if only this man were running for the White House. Somebody who would set the world aright for Karl Rove.
Name of Bush. Jeb Bush.