What is Karl Rove Smoking?

Karl Rove, "architect" of the Bush electoral machine, appeared on Fox News Sunday this weekend to analyze the 2008 campaigns. It was an enlightening discussion. (Transcript)

Conventional wisdom is that Rove is a brilliant political tactician. In fact, his success boils down to one very effective tactic: get your base to the polls in large numbers and ignore everyone else. This happened more or less automatically in 2000 when Republicans were desperate to cleanse the Oval Office from eight years of Clinton antics. Bush lost the popular vote but with Rove's engineering in swing states plus a little good luck in Florida, Bush made it into the White House.

2004 brought a somewhat greater challenge. Rove convinced several key states to place referendums to ban gay marriage on the ballot, knowing this would draw conservative voters who would coincidentally vote for Bush at the same time. It worked, again with not much room to spare.

With this record, I'm not convinced Rove is the Machiavellian genius so many people think he is. He may just be extraordinarily lucky. His instincts were revealed quickly in the Fox News interview. After Rove said that both parties need to present a positive, optimistic agenda in 2008 came this exchange:

WALLACE: And what from the Republican point of view would be the positive optimistic agenda?

ROVE: Well, first of all, taxes and spending, because this current Congress has got a lousy record on both.

The Republicans, though, also have to begin to deal in a very visible and vocal and powerful way with issues that people care about and talk about around the kitchen table like, "What about the cost of my health care? How can my kid go to college? What do we do to create more jobs and energy in America?"

And I'm confident, seeing our candidates around the country and seeing our presidential candidates, that there's a willingness to engage in these issues which heretofore Republicans have got good ideas about but have not been willing to talk about.

Rove is correct that the current Congress has a lousy record on taxes and spending. He failed to mention that from January 2001 through January 2007, his party controlled both Congress and the White House and domestic spending ballooned as never before. The president whom he served so loyally could not be bothered to veto a single spending bill, no matter how bloated and wasteful. None, zero, not one, until two months ago when Bush decided that the best place to draw the line would be children's health care. Now he wants to blame the Democrats? What nonsense.

Certainly the Democrats would be no better (and maybe a little worse) if they were in charge, but for Karl Rove to pretend like his party is the paragon of smaller government is laughable. The GOP had its big chance and they blew it. More specifically, George W. Bush blew it - with the help of Karl Rove.

Where this leaves us in 2008, I'm not sure. None of the GOP candidates (except Ron Paul) has given the slightest hint that he will do anything but continue what Bush did. Rove is wrong: there is no "willingness to engage" the really important questions. He tried to paint an optimistic picture for Republicans, but with the economy weakening and no end in sight to U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Democrats are a good bet to win back the White House and pad their margins in Congress. What they will do with their time remains to be seen. It's not likely to be good.

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