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By Jay Cost

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Some Thoughts on Rove

There has been a lot of commentary on the exiting of Karl Rove from the White House. This is not surprising. Over the last six years, he has been a powerful and polarizing figure.

At this point, I do not think it is possible for people to offer comprehensive assessments of him. The reason is that he is a partisan guy who had a partisan vision for the nation - one that he sought to implement. There is nothing wrong with this, but the fact of the matter is that his vision inspires in all of us some kind of emotional response. The thought of a permanent Republican majority akin to 1896-1932 induces some kind of reaction from you. And, my intuition is that analyses of Rove are correlated with those emotional responses. There has, in other words, been far too much praise and far too much condemnation of Karl Rove over the years. I think we're only going to get real about the politics of this White House when the stake that we all feel in the whole thing diminishes - which means, in turn, that analyses of Rove are going to be far from final for quite a while.

Accordingly, I'll just make two impressionistic comments about Rove.

1. Minimally, Karl Rove is going to be remembered as an innovative political campaigner. We all take integration of any kind for granted - but we should not. Bringing two disparate items together for a single purpose is very hard to do. Ultimately, it takes a lot of guts, vision, and (at least if you do it right) talent. Karl Rove was one of the key players in integrating precision marketing methods and computer-enhanced data analysis with the campaign for office. The result was one of the most effective voter mobilizations in the contemporary era.

In the postwar era, there have been an innumerable number of changes in the way that political campaigns have been fought. These have altered the role of the American political party. It used to be a mass party - in large part because it needed lots of average people participating so that the campaign could actually be waged. This mass party induced a great deal of participation in our system. Long before America had a modern government, it had a modern democracy in which the public was highly involved. But the rise of the contemporary campaign, most notably the introduction of television as a medium for communicating campaign messages, changed the focus of the party, which now needs expert consultants rather than a mass of volunteers. Thus, the party's role in voter mobilization declined.

Enter Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, and the Republican apparatus. They took the technology and the sophisticated knowledge of marketing, statistics, etc - many of the things that swung the party from a mass-based organization to a media-based organization - and applied them to voter mobilization.

The political value of this cannot be underestimated. What is more, it is a good thing for democracy. The party used to be the entity that got people thinking about and participating in politics. We have lost too much of this in the transition to the contemporary campaign. Thanks in part to the efforts of Karl Rove - we've returned to a least a measure of what we once had. He made it a more central focus of the Republican Party to get people out to the ballot box. That is a good thing.

2. If voter mobilization and electoral strategy were Rove's great strengths, I think that one of his weaknesses was poor image management. Indeed, this is a problem from which the entire Bush White House seems to have suffered.

I do not think that Rove is the devil that the left has made him out to be. Again, I think it is simply a matter of conflict displacement. He's a partisan guy with a partisan vision that he is trying to implement. This vision makes some people happy, other people angry.

I think that Rove and the Bush White House have not appreciated just how angry they could make people with their vision for the nation - and just how much political damage those angry people could do to them in return.

Now, this is not a critique of their vision for things. Again, I am avoiding that subject because it is simply too hot right now. The point is that I do not think that they fully anticipated the response of their political opponents, and the possibility that those opponents could thwart them in their implementation of that vision by casting them in a bad light.

This is exactly what has happened to Rove, who is now wrongly a "devil" in the mind of many. This is a sign that Rove and the Bush White House allowed the former's image to be co-opted and used against the administration. They did not take sufficient steps to control and manage that image.

Could it have been controlled? I think the answer is yes. After all, there is no person in politics today about whom people are more hyperbolic. This is a sign of an image problem. Meanwhile, the White House itself is the greatest power source for the construction and maintenance of political images. The only way the president becomes more powerful than the ridiculously slender powers of Article II is through the creation and maintenance of image - and, accordingly, the institution of the presidency has developed an innumerable set of tools to develop such images (look at the White House itself, for goodness sake!). So, Rove had an image problem and the White House has the capacity to manage image problems.

This indicates that the Bush administration chose not to use those tools to manage Rove's image. Karl Rove was always just himself while at the White House. He should not have been. He should have been like a high-profile senator. He was a public figure with a public image that should have been managed. I think that the administration never realized that - as the President's chief political adviser - Rove's image would come under fire, and that this attack could potentially damage the credibility of the White House.

And this hints at what I take to be the central failure of the Bush administration. Its second term has vaguely reminded me of the tenure of England's Charles I, who thought that he possessed a monopoly of political power in the realm. He was wrong, of course. Eventually his government needed more money than his feudal estates could supply, and he had to come crawling back to Parliament, which was not too pleased to have been dismissed for a decade or so.

The problem of the Bush White House is similar. The Bush administration has failed to appreciate that, even though its party enjoyed control over two branches of the federal government from 2003 to 2007, it did not have a monopoly on political power. It failed to understand that the other side had tools in its toolbox that it could use against the administration. That's federalism for you. The minority is always down, but never out. It always has some power.

The vote at the ballot box makes one coalition or another a majority. But it is only through the careful application of political skills that the majority coalition governs effectively. Effective majority coalitions are effective largely because they disarm the other side. They recognize that there is rarely if ever a mandate at the ballot box - and that battles over policy must be won by out-politicking the opposition, even though the opposition is in the minority. For instance, effective governing coalitions use their power to set the agenda to pass bills that unite their side and split the other side. They solve the problems of the other side's constituency to peel away their voters. And so on.

What they should never do is inspire the other side to take up their arms or, relatedly, dishearten their own side. They should not unite the other side or divide their own side. They should be conscious of the fact that the other side is laying traps for them, and that they must be careful in all that they do and say. They must be aware that those on their side do not guarantee unconditional loyalty, let alone affection. Generally, they should recognize that the minority retains some power that can be used against the majority, and that politicking does not end when the votes are counted.

At least since the 2002 midterm, the Bush administration has not politicked very well. Bush's early domestic policy agenda seemed to me to take these basic facts into account. Ditto his early response to 9/11. But after the 2002 midterm I do not think that the administration believed it had to play this kind of politics anymore. It stopped appreciating just how much its actions could inspire its political opponents to come after it, and just how many powers the minority possesses to facilitate the attack. Accordingly, it walked into trap after trap. Time and again - Iraq, Katrina, Harriet Meyers, Dubai, the Attorney General, Social Security, immigration - the White House has displayed a political ineptitude that is explicable only by the fact that it feels as though it need not play politics. The Bush administration is in the weakened position it is in now not just because the voters weakened it in November, 2006. It is weakened also because the opposition, which was in the minority before November, had done a good deal of damage to it before the midterm. The minority managed to turn the White House into a target of the public's ire - at least partially because the White House allowed this to happen by believing that it was somehow above politics.

The failure of the White House to manage Rove's image is part and parcel of this general failure to respect the power of its opponents. The White House allowed the opposition to recast in its own terms both Rove in particular and the administration in general because it did not respect the opposition's ability to do that. Today, the administration is paying the political price for this failure: its only source of power now is that ever-so-slender Article II.

-Jay Cost