Last month there was buzz over reports that Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, was offering advice to Donald Trump on his reelection prospects. As my colleague Jonathan Chait observed, Rove was too amoral to reject interactions with Trump that other Bush associates routinely eschewed:
That Rove would want to help Trump win a second term hardly comes as a surprise. Many high-level Bush administration veterans have recoiled at Trump’s racism, authoritarianism, and unfitness for office, and some have even had a crisis of conscience about their party’s historic alliance with racism. Rove has no conscience. His long record of public prognostication shows no evidence he draws a distinction between truth and lies, even in his own mind. Before Trump came along, Rove used to represent the state-of-the-art in Republican evil.
A couple of weeks later Rove is more publicly offering his counsel to Trump via an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And it reads like a final write-off of the president as incorrigible. It mostly urges Trump to become a different human being:
The president is behind with less than 18 weeks to go, and he’s trailing by more than Harry S. Truman in 1948, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012, all of whom rallied to win….
Last week Sean Hannity asked Mr. Trump about his second-term agenda. The president dodged, perhaps not wanting to lay it all out on cable TV. But the moment is fast approaching when Mr. Trump must describe what comes next. Find your calendar and circle Aug. 27, when he will accept his party’s nomination. More Americans will be listening then for what Mr. Trump wants to accomplish in the next four years than at any time in the campaign besides the debates.
In suggesting that Trump actually has a second-term agenda that he just didn’t want to reveal prematurely, Rove almost certainly had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. But he was probably deadly earnest in pointing out that the last two incumbent presidents to (narrowly) win reelection, his own master Bush and then Barack Obama, did so by converting a referendum election into a clear choice. Trump, he suggested, is running out of time to do the same, and needs to radically change his approach:
Mr. Trump’s success will depend on discipline, hardly his strength. Amid multiple crises—a pandemic, a badly damaged economy and racial unrest—Americans need to see competence equal to the country’s challenges, and a bold second-term agenda. Anything that undermines this—a needless tweet, a focus on a less important topic or a feud—increases the odds that Mr. Trump will be a one-term president.
It sounds like a kiss-off to me, and the basis for a post-election Rove op-ed explaining why the incumbent lost. His advice to Trump is for Trump to stop being Trump. It’s not likely to be accepted by the president who has managed to make American politics revolve around his his terrifying personality and his unpredictable utterances.