The rise and fall and rise of Karl Rove brings to mind some old Sinatra lyrics, about what should happen when life knocks you down: “You pick yourself up / and get back in the game.”
Rove is indeed back, having weathered the ’06 and ’08 Republican wipeouts, and I wouldn’t have been surprised last night if his appearance in front of a fawning Philadelphia audience had been spiced with that Sinatra serenade. But George W. Bush’s uber-strategist hardly needed music; his hosts at the National Constitution Center crooned their own love songs, hailing him as an “historic” figure, a “hero,” a “visionary.” And they caressed him with the kind of comfy questions that usually greet such heroes on Fox News – to wit, “What is this election about?” and “What do you think of the Tea Party?” and “In the years to come, how will George W. Bush be viewed?” and “How are the Republicans currently stacked up to exploit” the current public mood?
Granted, public figures are indulged in such settings, typically when they’re hawking a book (in this case, Rove’s recent Courage and Consequence). An adversarial climate would be considered impolite, and, as someone who has hosted Rove in the past, I find him to be a charming raconteur. But there’s a distinct downside to giving someone like Rove an unfettered opportunity to whitewash the historical record by omitting all kinds of inconvenient truths. His credulous listeners probably didn’t notice these glaring omissions – they were mostly focused on, and gladdened by, his bullish predictions about the ’10 midterm election (the GOP House seat pickups “could go all the way to 55”) – but one guy who did notice was me. It comes with the job.
For starters, that “visionary” label is a tad hyperbolic. A mere four years ago, Rove was ballyhooed in a new political book for his “breathtakingly ambitious plan to use the embryonic Bush presidency to build an enduring Republican majority.” The breathtaking plan promptly collapsed, and that book, which foresaw a “one-party country,” went to the remainder bin.
And while Rove last night was feted by his fans as a peerless seer, nobody seemed to remember how, in the Bush-era autumn of 2006, he had clung tenaciously to his futile prediction that the Republicans would retain House and Senate control. When a reporter reminded him that all the polls signaled a Democratic takeover, Rove shot back, “You are entitled to your math, and I’m entitled to the math… I said the math.”
And even after the math was proven wrong that November, Rove said it was no big deal, that a nationwide shift of a mere 77,611 votes would’ve enbsured another GOP House majority – a line of argument akin to saying that frogs would not bump their rumps if only they had wings.
All that recent history came to mind while he was confidently forecasting big Republican gains in 2010. His ’06 state of denial hardly means that he’s wrong today, and I’m not trying to imply it. But it was an eye-roller, nevertheless, when he summed up the current political climate with the observation that swing voters are voicing “deep concern about the size of government” – this from the guy whose president never once vetoed a congressional spending bill, a president who presided over the biggest government spending spree since LBJ.
Rove’s remarks about earmarks – those secret federal pork provisions, artfully inserted into legislation – were similarly amusing. He pointed out that today’s tea-partiers are in high dudgeon about earmarks, and he seemed to be outraged as well: “Most earmarks are not even voted on, did you know that?…It’s a waste of money, in many instances.” Nods of approval from his listeners.
But somehow Rove forgot to point out that earmarks exploded during the Bush era. Back in 2007, Rove’s client-in-chief signed off on roughly 580 earmarks worth $15 billion in one appropriations package that included $24 million for something called the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program. And somehow Rove last night forgot to mention this 2005 congressional remark: “In 1994, when the Congress was taken over by Republicans, there were 4000 earmarks on appropriations bills. Last year (2004), there were 15,000. It’s disgraceful.” The speaker was John McCain.
Despite this historical cleansing, however, Rove did manage to pinpoint a key challenge for Republicans, assuming they do control Congress in 2011: The new guard (elected with the help of tea-partiers) will likely be more opposed to earmarks, and other business-as-usual practices, than the older Republican guard. And he suggested that the old guard may have to change, if it hopes to retain grassroots voter support. In his words, “Republicans are on probation…People will judge them harshly if they fail to live up to expectations.”
All told, Rove cruised. When asked the aforementioned question about how Bush ultimately will be viewed by historians, he said, “History will get it right, eventually…He’ll be seen at home as a reformer, someone who took on the big challenges.” Really? A “reformer?” Somehow Rove forgot to mention that the more Bush talked about the partial privatization of Social Security, the less the public liked the idea. (It was Rove’s idea to put Bush on the road in 2005, whereupon poll support for the concept steadily declined.)
And perhaps a true reformer would’ve prioritized an economic quality of life for the average person – but, according to new Census data, it turns out that the Bush era was bad across the board. Between 2000 through 2009, median income (adjusted for inflation) fell by five percent for white families and more than 11 percent for black families; by comparison, median income between 1991 and 2000 (mostly the Clinton era) rose 13 percent for white families and 28 percent for black families. And one more thing: according to the new Census data, the income declines during the Bush era became more pronounced after the ’01 and ’03 Bush tax cuts kicked in.
This kind of material – complicating the Bush legacy – would not have been welcomed last night. It was Rove’s show to spin as he pleased. And so even though he bemoaned the decline of civility in politics (“Once you’re excoriating each other back and forth, it’s hard to break the habit”), he followed that up with a quippy ad hominem about President Obama’s impending appearance at the University of Wisconsin:
“Sort of like a little Moscow on the lake.”
Many indulgent chuckles. It was that kind of scene.