Karl Rove, the man known as Bush’s Brain, seemed to provide the mental ballast an intellectual lightweight like Bush needed. With the Bush administration sinking like a Russian submarine, Rove’s political genius suddenly seems of a lower order; like a contestant smart enough to win “The Price is Right,” but not someone you’d mention in the same breath as Einstein, Mozart, and Shakespeare.
Still, for a guy who never managed to finish college Rove did manage to accomplish quite a lot, including engineering a political realignment that will make Democrats the majority party for a generation or more. Too bad Rove is a Republican.
Rove deserves credit as the chief architect of the most spectacularly unsuccessful, incompetent, and unpopular administrations in American history. It’s no easy feat to have a wartime president with unparalleled public support, to have control of both houses of Congress, and yet accomplish virtually nothing of lasting significance on the legislative front. On Bush’s signature issues – the privatization of Social Security, immigration reform, faith-based initiatives, replacing Medicare with health savings accounts, and educational reform – only the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. No Child Left Behind, incidentally, is due to expire in a matter of months, and there is little enthusiasm to renew it.
Bush legacy won’t depend on his domestic achievements, thankfully. There’s no telling how bad Bush might have messed up the United States had he not been preoccupied with screwing up Iraq. To be fair, Karl Rove did not play a significant role in foreign affairs, so there’s no sense in blaming him for the “brilliant” idea to invade Iraq as a prelude to remaking the Middle East in America’s image. However, Karl Rove reportedly presided over a domestic policy review process that was so lackadaisical and undisciplined that one observer described it as like watching kids roll around on the White House Lawn.
Rove, it appears, was a genius when it came to reading polls, but a mental midget when it came to policy. His divide and conquer mentality, which led him to portray Democrats as fifth columnists in order to galvanize the Republican base was destined to be self-defeating. Put simply, Rove treated the Republican base the way Pavlov treated his dogs, or as B.F. Skinner treated his pigeons: as mechanistic cogs that could be trained to respond the same way every time to the same stimulus. Ring the bell before dinner and Pavlov’s dogs would soon be drooling every time they heard the bell. Mention “defeatocrats,” gay marriage, and tax and spend liberals and Rove could be certain that those who made up the Republican base would be foaming at the mouth as they pulled the correct lever in the voting both.
Rove’s approach was self-defeating for several reasons. First, his rhetorical appeals (“stay the course,” Democrats had failed to learn the lessons of 9/11, There’s no difference between Saddam and al-Qaeda, for instance) were basically pitched at the lowest common denominator. As Lincoln observed, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” At some point, Rove’s insipid slogans, empty clichés, and gross over simplifications were bound to alienate the more educated and sophisticated portions of the electorate. A movement that deliberately marginalizes the best and brightest in order to mobilize reactionaries, the superstitious, and the narrow-minded is not going to sustain itself over the long term.
Rove failed for many other reasons. He failed to build a broad-based coalition, he eschewed consensus building, and he did not establish sound decision-making procedures within the policy-making apparatus. As a result, everything about the Bush administration has proven brittle. Rove was like the general who had the perfect plan on paper, but it fell apart at the first whiff or reality. As Forest Gump might say, “stupid is as stupid does.”