It seems to me that though democrats may be irritated by the relish with which Rove disdains them and infuriated by his habit, until now at least, of winning, to say that they find his cleverness insufferable is preposterous. So preposterous, in fact, that only a certain kind of Washington hack hellbent on ignoring obvious truths in the name of balance, objectivity or those famous cocktail party invitations, could write this. ~Alex Massie
It is something of a puzzle where Rove acquired his reputation for political genius. This was the campaign consultant who made sure that Bush frittered away his late momentum in 2000 and turned a reasonably secure victory into an epic legal contest that his candidate just happened to win. His candidate received fewer votes than the guy being advised by Bob Shrum, almost universally agreed to be one of the worst campaign consultants of all time. The party he worked for picked up seats in midterm elections during a highly abnormal time of national rallying around the incumbent President in the wake of spectacular and unprecedented terrorist attacks and an initially more or less effective military response. This had literally nothing to do with him or his “genius.” Two years after that, he was very nearly responsible for running the unsuccessful re-election campaign of an incumbent wartime President, which would have been a first in American history. Without the idiocy of the Massachusetts Supreme Court making gay “marriage” a live political issue and triggering a wave of state referenda that mobilised voters who were also likely to back Bush, the ’04 campaign would probably have failed. Not only would no one have then confused Rove with a political “genius,” but they would have classed him with the other Bush loyalist hangers-on from the Texas years who were put in places of importance because of their relationship with the boss and not because of any significant ability.
Rove’s contribution to political strategy (mobilise the “base,” pretend that independent voters don’t really exist) wasn’t really terribly insightful or really all that new, and it proved to be good for relatively short-term gains. He did not build the structures necessary for the major realignment he purportedly wanted to create, but engaged in triangulation and the kind of petty symbolic politics in which Clinton trafficked. The difference is that where Clinton used such small-time symbolic political gestures (e.g., support for school uniforms) to broaden Democratic appeal, Rove and Bush took the path of vilifying domestic opponents to such an extent that they ended up implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) vilifying and/or alienating large swing-voting blocs. When in wartime and when belonging to a party reputedly competent in foreign policy and military matters, you can get away with this approach for a while, but once that image of competence vanishes you will suddenly find that your “clever” strategy of base mobilisation to the exclusion of almost everything else was not really very clever at all.
The truly pathetic thing about the Rove approach is that the administration he helped get elected and re-elected has pursued policies that almost uniformly do not serve the interests of the core constituencies on whose support Rove placed so much importance. He has managed to duplicate Hillary Clinton’s bad combination of extreme liberal image/actually centrist politics, but he has had Bush take it even farther. That is, Bush endorses policies that are wildly at odds with his core constituencies’ desires while cultivating a reputation for being an insane far-out extremist who appeals to the most dangerous fringes. Symbolically in many ways, Bush has sought to portray himself as fiercely conservative (hence all of the disillusionment and shock expressed by many pundits as they have discovered that he is not, in fact, conservative) while governing as the reincarnations of Wilson and LBJ combined. The utterly superficial and meaningless nature of Bush’s symbolic appeals ought to have been obvious, but for many on the left it was simply too perfect to have a real Texan evangelical conservative as a foil for their arguments. That he was actually an Eastern transplant Ivy Leaguer who loved business interests and the mass immigration that they wanted did not, could not, get in the way of the caricature, because that caricature was so satisfying. Everyone (except actual conservative Christians) got something out of perpetuating this farce: Bush won reflexive conservative support as soon as liberals began bashing Bush for his evangelicalism and supposed conservatism, while the liberals had an ideal target and someone onto whom they could project all of their baroque and crazy fears of incipient Southern-fried theocracy. His manipulation and their irrationality were a natural fit. It hardly required a genius to pursue this strategy, which was good news for Bush, because he certainly didn’t have a genius advising him.