Karl Rove's Moment

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

Two things follow: First, the relative impact of political ads versus news coverage is much greater than a casual observer might think. Second, and more important, if you can keep bad news off the front page and off TV news, most people will never even know it happened. There are only a handful of media organizations in charge of what Americans see on the national TV news, and they are always looking over their shoulders at each other. They're not just pack animals; they're an exceptionally small and manageable pack. Give them interesting things to take pictures of, toss them an emotionally charged sideshow like gay marriage occasionally, and they will show the public whatever you want them to see.

The political opposition? Please. They were pathetic to start with, and September 11 paralyzed them completely. The Democrats have been chasing Republicans' fumes since Reagan. For the past generation they have not disagreed with the GOP in principle on any of the important points of empire, capital's prerogatives, or economic austerity at home; they just fuss more and go slower. To them, elections have been battles over market share more than the direction of things. In the process, the Democratic Party has gone soft. It's politically unserious, no longer capable of putting up a sustained fight. This is nothing new. Republicans got away with Iran-Contra in the '80s, and Bill Clinton was nearly booted from office for illicit blow jobs. George Bush I got little flack for pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators on his way out of office; Bill Clinton let a sleazy financier named Marc Rich off the hook, and Republicans kept the issue in play for weeks.


All of which brings us to Karl Rove's radical insight, his claim to true genius if he has one: He arrived in Washington knowing that the vaunted institutions of democracy were bankrupt, that the whole civics-class edifice of checks and balances, reasoned political debate, and a vigorous, impartial press amounted to a paper line you could just walk through. (The terms of his boss's 2000 win proved that: Whatever might be said about fraud and chicanery in Florida, no one can dispute that it all came down to a 5-4 Supreme Court vote in which two of the justices who voted for Bush had family members who worked for his campaign.) If it wasn't quite as simple as that formulation makes it sound, the project proved no less feasible in the end. It involved the two central virtues invoked by Napoleon: audacity and an "extremely circumspect defensive." For Bush-Rove in 2004, the latter means a massive effort to divert attention from the facts of Bush's record.

But the totality of their successes can't be put down to running slick campaigns. For a good three years, the Bush gang had its way with "the political process" without being called to account for much of anything. The autocratic prerogative they've enjoyed is so glaring that a line of apologetics has already been constructed for posterity: The whole political system rolled over for Bush because it was the patriotic thing to do after 9/11.

Aside from being largely untrue, this explanation also fails to explain anything. If the post-September 11 world was suddenly defined by a war against terrorism, then surely any great--or halfway-sound--democracy would have indulged in vigorous debate over the course of the fight. Voices surely would have risen up to question the wisdom of invading a nation whose terrorism threat looked--and, shockingly, turned out to be--fictitious. All the while, a free press would have dug in its heels and sought to illuminate the underlying issues (the range of them, mind you, not just the officially sanctioned ones) to a concerned citizenry. But none of this ever happened, unless you count the lonely, stately protests of Robert Byrd as an "opposition."

So there you go. To speak of Karl Rove's successes is to speak of the failures and corruptions of American politics and public life. They are two expressions of the same thing. Since January and the start of the Democratic presidential campaign, there has been some hint of life in the loyal opposition and the press; American newspapers, led by the big three (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), have turned notably more critical in their Bush coverage. Any one of numerous potential scandals still might return to haunt the administration. (One of the figures reportedly implicated in the criminal investigation of the Plame leak is Rove underling I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.) There are also signs that Democrats aren't the only ones in the Washington political establishment feeling anxious about Bush's brazenness and his reckless, sloppy management of economy and empire. This circle is not a great power in electoral politics, but it could lend fuel to a media feeding frenzy, if one arose.

The president could lose this election, as I'm guessing Rove surmised early on. In crafting a campaign that is half poison-pen note, half Hallmark card, he and George W. are wagering against a lot of things: real, and serious, competition from John Kerry and the Democrats; and sustained criticism of Bush in the media. These aren't bad bets. The news media has proven that it does consist mainly of deadline-driven trained seals, most of whom don't know much about the issues in question themselves. But they do know the rules of political theater, and that is what they write about. Rove and the Republicans understand this so much better than the Democrats that in terms of hand-to-hand political combat, it's a little like the Democratic National Committee beer-ball team against the New York Yankees.

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