Karl Rove's Moment

How "Bush's Brain" hijacked Washington, D.C. and politics-as-usual

Along the way, Rove kept up his ties to the Bush family, working on Sr.'s successful run for president in 1988. When it came time to launch the political career of George W., every pol in Texas knew that Rove--if not necessarily Bush--had one eye on the White House from the start. But not even Mr. Timing himself could have anticipated how ripe the world inside the Beltway would be for his style of politics by the time he arrived.

 

Recently the Rove machine has started performing like its old self again, cranking out positioning ads and anti-Kerry ads and regaining control of the daily news agenda. A New York Times/CBS poll last week showed Bush creeping back ahead of Kerry, 46-43, though W's negatives remained high (54 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction, matching Bush's all-time low). Last Wednesday a freshly poised Rove spoke to a group of conservative activists and fundraisers convened by anti-tax guru Grover Norquist. According to the AP account of the meeting, "Rove assured [the group] that Bush planned a nimble campaign able to counterpunch even before Kerry opens his mouth. The White House adviser pointed with pride to the Bush camp's response Tuesday, when it got word that Kerry planned a national security speech to veterans in West Virginia. Less than 24 hours after learning of the speech, the Bush campaign produced an ad criticizing Kerry for his Senate votes on military spending. It also dispatched volunteers to hand out pro-Bush material to West Virginians, and started radio ads in the state.

"The Bush campaign has material ready to go on Kerry based on his votes and speeches, said a Republican who attended the session. Whenever Kerry raises an issue, the Bush-Cheney campaign will be prepared to hand out leaflets, and run ads on TV and radio."

Rove is never without detailed attack strategies, but he always keeps the master plan simple. He once summed up the entire Bush 2000 campaign thus: Character, not issues; and play on the other guy's turf (that is, target and take away a few Democratic strongholds, as Republicans did in West Virginia and Al Gore's home state of Tennessee). The plan for 2004 is not hard to infer. Where issues are concerned, say that tax cuts stimulate growth and the president is tough on terrorism. But once again, make the main issue character--which really means personality. Make Bush look steady, likeable, strong. Make Kerry look feckless, self-serving, cynical. Include in the mix some tough-but-sentimental ad spots that function more or less like video yule logs burning in the electronic hearth. They encourage comfort with Bush. And raise enough cash to outspend God if it comes to that.

Now every schoolchild knows that modern political campaigns revolve around cash, but that does not begin to express the Zen of Money as Rove practices it. His famous historical obsession with the election of 1896 holds some clues. The victory of Republican William McKinley over the free-silver Democrat William Jennings Bryan represented the first time that a candidate had been packaged so much like a product, or marketed to so many discrete corners of the populace. The Republicans' success in targeting the new urban immigrant working class helped them prevail, but at unprecedented cost. To finance it, the architects of McKinley's campaign, Mark Hanna and Charles Dawes, raised the unheard-of sum of $3.5 million by direct and urgent appeal to the captains of industry.

Rove's first rule of politics is to know where the money is. His first rule of governance is to keep one's political base mollified while setting about the serious work of assuring the commanding allegiance of big political donors in the next election cycle. In 2001, when the Bush administration made cutting taxes on the highest marginal rates its first order of domestic business, the implications for future fundraising could not have been lost on Rove. In this White House, it might have been the main impetus for starting with tax cuts. In any case, Rove expects to have something in excess of $200 million to make Bush's case to the people. (In case you don't plan to watch, here it is: Go back to sleep.)

It's said one quality that sets Rove apart is his ability to see the whole playing field in politics. So let's talk about the playing field that Rove seems to see.

Start with the people. They are tired, overworked, and scared--about their own livelihoods and threats from without. More important, they are woefully ignorant and easily worn down concerning the details of any political subject. They are acclimated to political races in which the main differences revolve around personality, and they're comfortable making almost entirely emotional decisions about candidates. This is an overgeneralization, but to date a viable one. Presidential elections are mass-culture phenomena, and the majority of voters in any election know very little of substance about the candidates or issues involved.

The media: On a mass basis, the medium that matters most by far is television. According to a 2003 Pew Research Center study, over 80 percent of Americans claim to get most of their news from TV. And if you take the further step of looking at TV news viewership numbers, you will find them pretty underwhelming. The only sensible conclusion is that a great many Americans consume political news in sporadic, sidelong fashion if at all. Many others try to follow events, but lack the time for anything beyond a few minutes of cable news and glance at their newspaper's front page.

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