Karl Rove, Super Genius

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

The media don't pay attention to Karl Rove because of his policy gravitas or his moral rectitude. They pay attention to him because of his political judgment; because he is Karl Rove, Super Genius. Or so they think. The reality is that Rove's political judgment is wildly overrated.

Karl Rove has a regular Wall Street Journal column. He's a Fox News contributor. Newsweek hired him as a contributor. As Gloria Borger said in 2007: "[W]hen Rove speaks, the political class pays attention -- usually with good reason."

But it is increasingly clear that there isn't really any "good reason" to pay attention to what Rove says.

I don't say that because Rove's immoral and possibly criminal behavior was notable even in an administration defined by immoral and possibly criminal behavior, or because he advocates policies that have failed again and again. You could make a pretty good argument for either of those attributes disqualifying him from a place of honor in the media, but they are beside the point. The media don't pay attention to Karl Rove because of his policy gravitas or his moral rectitude. They pay attention to him because of his political judgment; because he is Karl Rove, Super Genius.

Or so they think.

The reality is that Rove's political judgment is wildly overrated.

The basis of the media's belief that Rove is a political savant would seem to be fairly unimpeachable. After all, he did manage to guide George W. Bush, of all people, into the White House.

But look closer. Bush (and Rove) had the benefit of running against a candidate the media absolutely loathed -- and lied about. The media loved Bush. (And why not? He gave them nicknames! Stretch! Ha!) The country was at peace, the economy was strong, and so the public was not as concerned as they might otherwise have been about handing the country over to someone who confused the prime minister of Canada with an order of cheese fries.

So, the Bush campaign had some things going for them. Still, the campaign was a nail-biter. And at the end, it was clear that the presidency would come down to a handful of states that were essentially toss-ups, most notably Florida. So what did Karl Rove, Super Genius, do? He sent his candidate to California and New Jersey, two states he didn't have a prayer of winning.

But for a series of lucky (for Bush and Rove) accidents, the decision may well have cost Bush the presidency. Had thousands of elderly Jewish voters in South Florida not mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan because of a flawed ballot design; had Florida not purged thousands of legal voters from its rolls; had the Supreme Court ordered a recount of the entire state rather than installing Bush in a decision so baseless the court indicated that it should not be used as precedent going forward -- had random, dumb luck not intervened -- Bush would have lost the election by a razor-thin margin. And Rove's decision to send his candidate to California at the end of the campaign would be remembered as one of the most spectacular blunders in American history. He'd be a laughingstock.

Well, the fact that a stupidly designed ballot confused some elderly Jewish voters into casting their ballots for the nation's most famous defender of Adolf Hitler doesn't make Rove's late-campaign focus on California and New Jersey any less foolish.

Nor did Rove display the unerring political acumen the media ascribes to him upon entering the White House. As Slate's Jacob Weisberg put it, Rove "managed to lose control of the Senate for his side without an election, when a neglected Republican moderate, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, quit the GOP."

True, Republicans picked up seats in 2002, and Bush won re-election in 2004. But those victories come with the biggest, boldest asterisk you can imagine. After the worst terrorist attack in American history occurred on Bush's watch, the public rallied around him to the tune of a 90-percent approval rating. By the time Rove left Bush's side in August 2007, only a third of that support remained.

The great strategic insight of the 2004 Bush re-election campaign (unless you count "get attacked by terrorists and start an unnecessary war on false pretenses" as a political strategy) was that the president could be re-elected by appealing to the base rather than the center. But that was Matthew Dowd's realization, not Rove's.

Then there were the 2006 midterm elections, which Rove decided to make into a referendum on a spectacularly unpopular president's spectacularly unpopular handling of the Iraq war. Not a bad strategy -- if only Rove were a Democrat. Amazingly, as Eric Boehlert detailed at the time, the media bought into Rove's strategy. Mark Halperin said the Democrats should be "scared to death about November's elections." The Note added that Iraq looked like "a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party."

By the fall of 2006, it had been clear for at least a year that the GOP was in a shambles. (In September 2005, I wrote in amazement that media pundits like Howard Fineman were able to "gaze upon the smoldering wreckage of the Republican Party and conclude that Democrats have good reason to be gloomy.") And yet when Rove implausibly claimed that the Republicans would be just fine in the coming elections -- he had "The Math," he insisted -- many in the media took his absurd fantasies seriously. ABC's Claire Shipman, for example, told viewers that the "political Svengali" had presented "a compelling scenario" for the Republicans to hold onto Congress.

Just a week later, the "Svengali" and his "math" took a "thumpin'," as Bush called it.

In 2007, Rove took his political genius back to the private sector, where he continued his streak of offering jaw-droppingly poor political assessments that were, for no apparent reason, taken seriously by the media. Upon announcing his departure from the White House, Rove predicted his boss would "move back up in the polls" (despite jettisoning Rove, Bush's poll numbers remained at historically low levels for the rest of his presidency) and that Republicans had a "very good chance" of winning the 2008 presidential election. Later, Rove predicted Republicans would pick up seats in the 2008 congressional elections. Wrong again: Republicans lost 21 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

Nor has Rove's track record improved since President Obama took office, as a look at his recent Wall Street Journal columns makes clear.

On March 12, Rove tried to assess the politics of criticism of Rush Limbaugh:

Was it smart politics and good policy? No. ... The West Wing looked populated by petulant teenagers intent on taking down a popular rival. Such talk also shortens the president's honeymoon by making him look like a street-fighting Chicago pol instead of an inspirational, unifying figure. The upward spike in ratings for Rush and other conservative radio commentators shows how the White House's attempt at a smackdown instead energized the opposition.

How does that assessment of what is and isn't "smart politics" look two months later? President Obama: Still popular. The "opposition": Not so much.

And to whom did the White House appear "populated by petulant teenagers"? Not to the public. To whom did Obama "look like a street-fighting Chicago pol instead of an inspirational, unifying figure"? Not to the public.

More Rove:

Did it do any good with voters not strongly tied to either party? I suspect not. With stock markets down, unemployment growing, banks tottering, consumers anxious, business leaders nervous, and the economy shrinking, the Obama administration's attacks on a radio talk show host made it seem concerned with the trivial.

To whom did the Obama administration "seem concerned with the trivial"? Again, not to the public.

A week later, on March 19, Rove wrote that "President Barack Obama ... is unwittingly giving the Republicans an opening." Rove explained that Obama's decision to sign a spending bill that contained earmarks would cause him problems, given his campaign criticism of earmarks, and that Obama's comments about the economy (which Rove misrepresented) would blow up in his face:

With the Dow at 7,486 and unemployment at 8.1%, Mr. Obama says the economy is fundamentally sound. Does he suppose the nation won't recall him attacking John McCain last September for saying the same thing -- when the Dow was at 11,000 and unemployment at 6.2%?

Well, two months later, how does that bit of political prognostication look? How many Americans do you think have any idea what Rove was even talking about?

Rove continued:

Republicans sense the opportunity. The House GOP leadership deputized the top Budget Committee Republican, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to prepare an alternative budget. The GOP budget won't raise taxes, gets spending and debt under control, and will result in a stronger economy with more jobs. House Republicans plan a major selling effort back home during the coming recess. Minority Leader John Boehner is already up on YouTube extolling the plan.

Yeah? And how did that work out? Oh, right: they looked like buffoons, promising an alternative budget and instead producing a widely ridiculed pamphlet that contained a few nonsensical charts but no actual "budget."

Rove's next column, in praise of the "tea party" nonsense cable news inflicted on viewers for days on end, purported to assess public opinion about taxes:

The fear of future federal tax hikes is fueling the tea-party movement.

This is an important development. In 2008, voters were less worried about taxes than they had been in previous elections.

[...]

It hasn't gotten a ton of attention, but people are fed up with the complexity of their tax code and ready to do something about it. The Tax Foundation's 2009 Annual Tax Attitudes (which was conducted Feb. 18-27, by Harris) shows us that many Americans are willing to trade popular deductions for lower rates and a simpler code. There's also been a flurry of interest among Americans in replacing the current system with a national sales tax or a flat tax.

[...]

The 2009 Tax Foundation survey found that Americans believe that taxes should, on average, take just 15.6% of a person's wages. And 88% of Americans in the same poll believe that there should be a cap on all federal, state, and local taxes of 29% or less -- there is still a constituency out there that will favor tax cutting politicians.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Tax Foundation's 2006 Annual Tax Attitudes poll found much the same thing? Well, it did. In that poll, a majority of Americans were willing to trade deductions for a simpler code; the mean response to the question about how much Americans should pay in taxes was 15 percent; when asked to choose from a flat tax, sales tax, or the current system, 53 percent said either flat or sales. The 2007 poll found basically the same thing. (There wasn't a 2008 poll.)

So Rove is pointing to all this polling data as though it shows an "important development" -- an increase in public concern about taxes. But the polling data he points to is basically the same as it has been for years. This is his evidence that -- unlike 2008, when the public was "less worried about taxes than they had been in previous elections" -- people are suddenly up in arms about taxes? Polling data that show the public isn't currently more worried about taxes than it has been in recent years? Surely the great Karl Rove knows that if you want to assess movement in public opinion, you have to look at trend lines, not single data points?

Oh, and get this: Rove stresses that the 2009 poll "found that Americans believe that taxes should, on average, take just 15.6% of a person's wages," as though this proves that the public is increasingly sick of high taxes. In fact, that mean response of 15.6 percent is higher than it was in 2007 (14.7 percent) and 2006 (15 percent). So the polling data that Karl Rove, Super Genius, used to make the point that Americans are increasingly fed up with taxes actually show them moving in the opposite direction!

On April 30, Rove acknowledged Obama's popularity at the 100-day mark, which he attributed in part to the fact that Obama "has passed key legislation."

Wait, isn't that "key legislation" the very stuff that just a few weeks earlier Rove predicted would doom Obama and lead to a GOP revival?

Now, I know what Rove's fan club in the news media would say to all this. Rove didn't really believe the GOP would be fine in 2006; it was his job to project confidence. He didn't really believe they'd pick up seats in 2008; he was spinning for his team. Rove doesn't really think you can assess shifts in public attitudes about taxes by looking at a single poll rather than trend lines; he's just cherry-picking data that fit his argument.

Well, OK. Maybe all that is true. Maybe Karl Rove, Super Genius, knows that the spectacularly wrong political assessments he offers in public are spectacularly wrong. Maybe he really is a savant and a Svengali and a seer. That isn't a reason to listen to Rove, that's yet another reason not to listen to Rove: He's knowingly saying things that are nonsense. The "fact" that Rove is a political mastermind doesn't make him worth listening to if what he says is intentionally wrong.

Yet the media continue to listen to Rove, even though he's wrong more often than a broken clock.

Why?

Part of it has to do with one thing Karl Rove has done very well: selling the idea of Karl Rove.

The devil's greatest trick may have been convincing the world that he didn't exist, but Rove's greatest was convincing the media that he does exist. Or rather that Karl Rove, Super Genius, exists.

That reputation among the media led reporters to attribute greater importance to Rove's pronouncements than they deserved. It made them more likely to run with Rove-approved storylines, which, of course, meant that those storylines took root in the media, reinforcing reporters' belief that Rove was master of some mysterious art of political communication.

The reality was much simpler: Reporters decided Rove was a genius, so they printed whatever he wanted them to print. Reporters then saw Rove getting whatever he wanted into the media, and that reinforced the idea that he was a genius, so they assumed his attacks on Democrats would be effective and covered them as such -- and so on. It's the closest thing to a perpetual motion machine we've seen in modern American politics.

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Karl Rove
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