Politics is the art of the possible. Therefore, the notion of the political operative as magician or evil genius is nonsensical. Yet it’s easy to see why the image holds sway. First, most of us are prone at times to magical thinking. Second, the press likes to write these kinds of stories. Third, it provides the losing party with an easy excuse. Fourth, it can provide the winning party with a sense of invincibility.
Karl Rove was neither a magician nor an evil genius. But he did help his candidates achieve most of what was possible. In Texas, he led the charge to convert that state from Democrat to Republican, but did so in the context of a South that was moving inexorably in that direction. In 2000, he seemed to push the limits of the possible by helping elect George W. Bush in what should have been a Democratic year. But he accomplished this only because of the Nader candidacy and because of a quirk that enabled his man to win with fewer popular votes than his opponent.
In 2002, he helped engineer gains in Congress, but in the context of a presidency that had become extremely popular in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2004, his candidate still held a small natural edge, but it required an outstanding effort to convert that edge into victory in the face of a fiercely determined, and well organized opposition party. In 2006, victory was not possible, so Rove and company did not achieve it.
Rove was more than just a political operative, particularly in the second term. There are always risks when a “politico” gets a policy role, but Rove shouldn’t be blamed for Bush’s second term slide. Second terms almost never match first terms either in terms of general efficacy or ideological quality. Moreover, there’s no basis of which I’m aware for blaming the policy decisions conservatives don’t like on Rove. We do know he’s aligned with Bush on immigration policy, but every indication is that Bush believes in these policies independent of any political calculation or other input from Rove.
The one policy matter for which Rove should perhaps receive blame is the firing of the U.S. attorneys. It seems likely that the impetus for these firings, and perhaps much of the direction, came from the White House, and from Rove’s shop in particular. As I’ve argued repeatedly, there almost surely is no scandal here. It is the president’s right to fire federal prosecutors so long as doing so is not an attempt to obstruct justice or engage in wrongful prosecution. And there’s no evidence that these firings came anywhere near that line.
Nonetheless, events have confirmed what a shrewd analyst and student of history should have sensed — that it was a bad idea to fire prosecutors who were performing at acceptable levels of competence. This was true whether the motive was the desire to reward friends or the desire to remove a small number of prosecutors who arguably weren’t serious enough about prosecuting voting fraud. A sound assessment of risks versus rewards would have counseled against these moves and in favor of pushing the Justice Department to concentrate on filling appellate court vacancies.
Ultimately, though, this matter is of very little consequence. Rove’s legacy instead is of the man who helped the Republicans collect nearly all of the chips available given the cards that they had.
UPDATE: I should have said that victory in 2006 was not possible for Republicans in the House. Clearly, it was possible to have held the Senate, where the Republicans fell one seat short and where the races in Virginia and Montana were extremely close. In retrospect, the Republicans should have found a way to force Conrad Burns aside, which might have enabled the GOP to win in Montana and thus hold the Senate.
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