Karl Rove is a key strategic leader of the Republican Party. The former chief adviser to President George W. Bush, Rove is a contributor to Fox News and helps lead the American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS political action committees.
Rove's reputation took a serious hit during the 2012 presidential election, when he helped direct hundreds of millions of dollars of donations from wealthy donors to losing congressional and presidential campaigns, predicting a victory for Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) that never materialized. In the aftermath of the election, which President Barack Obama won handily, Rove eventually attempted to explain the result by arguing that Obama "suppressed the vote" by discouraging potential Romney supporters. Politico responded, "As many pundits and strategists have pointed out, the Obama campaign succeeded in large part because it appealed to—and registered—non-white voters, expanding (rather than suppressing) the vote in key battleground states."
On the night of the election, Rove made headlines by protesting—live on the air—Fox News' decision to call the state of Ohio (and hence the election) for Obama. "I'd be very cautious about intruding into the process," Rove warned, leaving Fox anchor Chis Wallace "nearly speechless," according to the Los Angeles Times. Rove's outburst prompted Wallace's cohost Megyn Kelly to visit the network's so-called "Decision Desk," where the network's statisticians stood resolutely by their prediction that Ohio would fall to Obama. Concluded the Times: "The face-off made for sublimely weird television but also crystallized what's become the meta-narrative of this election: the triumph of the data-driven nerds over ideological pundits."
The election result was all the more embarrassing for Rove and his backers because of the sheer amount of money they spent on the campaigns. Reported Kenneth Vogel, "Romney and his allies spent $1.2 billion on the race, compared with $1 billion spent by Obama and his allies, according to a POLITICO analysis of records on Federal Election Commission data and public statements. Nearly 40 percent of Team Romney's spending came from super PACs and other unlimited outside money groups, compared with about 12 percent for Team Obama." In trying to rationalize the loss, Rove argued: "Look, if groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would have been over a long time ago. President Obama came out of the box on May 15 with $215 million of advertising over a 2½-month period, designed to demonize Mitt Romney."
Rove and his allies were also roundly defeated in Senate races. According to the Washington Post, "In the Senate, the conservative push was a resounding failure. Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other GOP-leaning groups spent at least $94 million targeting Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Timothy M. Kaine (Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), according to FEC data; all emerged victorious Tuesday."
Discussing the election debacle, the Post reported: "If election investments are like the stock market, a lot of billionaires just lost their shirts. American Crossroads, co-founded by GOP political guru Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, which focused on supporting Romney in the presidential race, together spent more than $450 million, with little to show for it in the end. The groups relied on six- and seven-figure checks from energy executives, hedge-fund managers and other wealthy donors eager to oust Obama and congressional Democrats."
Rove emerged again in early 2013 to lampoon former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican nominated by Obama to head the Pentagon during Obama's second term. Hawks and "pro-Israel" hardliners opposed Hagel because of his opposition to the Iraq war and his occasional criticism of the U.S. Israel lobby. Speaking to Eli Lake the Daily Beast, Rove bitterly recalled the 2000 GOP presidential primary, claiming that Hagel initially backed George W. Bush but later abruptly shifted his support to his Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain. "When McCain became a credible candidate he just flipped," Rove said. "That's Hagel: mercurial, focused on doing it his way."
On Foreign Policy
Although typically regarded as an election strategist whose main strength is domestic policy, Rove often weighs in on foreign affairs to lambast Democrats and provide messaging advice to Republican candidates. A case in point was his March/April 2012 Foreign Policy article, "How to Beat Obama." Coauthored by Ed Gillespie (a former head of the Republican National Committee), the article argued that although "conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama's few strong suits," Republicans could attack him on this front "by translating the center-right critique of his foreign policy into campaign themes and action."
In particular, wrote Rove and Gillespie, Republicans should point to "Obama's failed promises, missed opportunities, and erratic shifts [which] suggest he is out of touch and in over his head. For example, before he was elected, he promised to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela 'without precondition.' Nothing came of that except a serious blow to the image of the United States as a reliable ally. During the 2008 campaign, he also argued that Iran was a 'tiny' country that didn't 'pose a serious threat.' How foolish that now seems. At the same time, the Republican candidate should not hesitate to point out where Obama has left his Republican predecessor's policies largely intact."
Commenting on this line of argument, John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus wrote that the two authors "don't quite explain how the president can be both praised and criticized for policies that simultaneously represent a reassuring continuity with and a disastrous departure from George W. Bush's reign. But Rove and Gillespie don't care about logic. They care only about vulnerability." Feffer pointed out that despite the decision by leading 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to argue that Russia is America's main antagonist, Rove and Gillespie "identify 'radical Islamic terrorism' as the primary focus of any successful Republican foreign policy attack." Other items on their agenda include President Obama's decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan and his purported weakness on "rogue states" like Iran. "In other words," wrote Feffer, "what might seem to be a diverse list of threats is in fact one threat that comes in a couple different flavors. That threat is Islam."
Rove was the key strategist behind George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns and served as one of the president's chief White House advisers. He held various posts during the Bush presidency, including deputy chief of staff, senior adviser, and chief political strategist. Among his key strategic successes was the campaign to energize the evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party, which proved crucial to Bush's second presidential victory.
On the other hand, Rove was a lightning rod for criticism during his tenure at the White House and was investigated in relation to a number of scandals that plagued the Bush administration, including the firings of several U.S. attorneys, which observers saw as politically motivated. He was also widely believed to have been involved with the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity, and was named as a defendant—along with Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis Libby, and Richard Armitage—in an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by Plame.
Recounting the scandals Rove was linked to, the Washington Post reported in 2007: "[Rove] escaped indictment in the CIA leak case, has been under scrutiny by the new Democratic Congress for his role in the firings of U.S. attorneys and in a series of political briefings provided to various agencies across government. Citing executive privilege, he defied a subpoena and refused to show up for a congressional hearing ... on the allegedly improper use by White House aides of Republican National Committee email accounts."
Despite the numerous accusations that swirled around his office, Rove never shied away from provoking his critics. In mid-2006, he angered some Democrats when he accused liberals of being weak and timid in the face of terror. He said: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy for our attackers."
In mid-2007, Rove announced his intent to resign during an interview with the Wall Street Journal, claiming that family reasons were his motive for stepping down. "I just think it's time," he said. "There's always something that can keep you here, and as much as I'd like to be here, I've got to do this for the sake of my family."
A scathing New York Times editorial at the time opined: "Karl Rove, the architect of so much that has gone so wrong with the Bush administration, announced yesterday that he is leaving the White House to spend more time with his family. What he didn't say is that by getting out of town he is also hoping to avoid spending any time at all with congressional investigators. Congress should not oblige. The American public needs to understand the full story of how this White House—with Mr. Rove pulling many of the strings—has spent the last six and a half years improperly and dangerously politicizing the federal government."
Commenting on Rove's White House tenure, New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore wrote in 2006: "No political figure is more vital to the self-esteem of the Democratic Party and its faithful than Karl Rove. Ever since Rove rose to national renown with George W. Bush some six years ago, he has provided sweet relief for Democrats otherwise ill equipped to explain Bush's successes. For the president's critics, it is axiomatic that Rove is supremely diabolical and inscrutably brilliant, since they're also pretty sure the president himself is neither."
Early Track Record
An April 2005 Frontline documentary about Rove contended that Bush's 2004 election win was the crowning achievement in a 30-year plan that Rove had devised to make the Republican Party the permanent majority party in the United States. Rove was also credited with having helped turn what was once a staunchly Democratic state, Texas, into a key Republican stronghold, a turnaround that climaxed with Bush's victory over the popular Democratic governor, Ann Richards, in the 1994 gubernatorial election. The Texas governor's mansion became a staging ground for the Bush campaign for the White House.
Some observers contend that part of Rove's success was based on his willingness to fight dirty. This tendency expressed itself early. In 1970, Rove stole 1,000 sheets of letterhead from the office of Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, who was running for state treasurer. Rove printed the message "Free beer, free food, girls, and a good time for nothing" on the sheets and distributed them as a supposed invitation to a Dixon rally. Though the rally was disrupted, Dixon won the election. Rove owned up to the stunt many years later, saying: "It was a youthful prank at the age of 19 and I regret it."
Rove went to work for the College Republicans National Committee and became involved in the Nixon campaign, which brought him to the attention of then-CIA director George H.W. Bush. In a 2003 article on Rove, Robert Reich reported: "It's no accident that Karl Rove was one of Richard Nixon's moles. Using techniques developed by his first mentor, dirty-tricks strategist Donald Segretti, Rove infiltrated Democratic organizations on behalf of Nixon's infamous 1972 campaign. Rove's formidable talents came to the attention of George Bush Senior, then incoming Republican National Committee chairman, and the rest is history."
In 1986, Rove, in Texas and working on a campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements, declared that Democrats had bugged his office. The accusation, which spurred an FBI investigation, never panned out, leading critics to charge that Rove had bugged his own office. In late 1999, there was widespread speculation that Rove was behind the whisper campaign alleging that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), then a leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, was in danger of cracking from stress of having been a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Rove is also believed by many to be behind another, more vicious whisper campaign against McCain during the race for the presidential nomination. "Anonymous opponents used 'push polling' to suggest that McCain's [adopted] Bangladeshi-born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child," reported the Boston Globe. "In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the 'pollster' determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator. Thus, the 'pollsters' asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black." McCain lost the South Carolina primary.
The apparent pattern of alleged dirty tricks continued. During Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, Rove was accused of being connected to the so-called Swift Boat veterans whose efforts to denigrate John Kerry's Vietnam record seemed cribbed directly from the "Rovian" playbook.
In 2002, the BBC reported: "The White House has acknowledged that Rove took part in meetings that helped shape the Bush government's energy policy, while he still held Enron shares and stock in other energy companies—though the administration denies that the meetings were specific enough to raise conflict-of-interest."
For Rove, the frequent assertions that he is behind all Republican successes remain a source of amusement. As he said in an October 2006 interview: "The underlying theory is if we can't prove that Rove was involved with it, then Rove was involved in it."