In the aftermath of their presidential election defeat, many Republicans took out their frustration on Mitt Romney and his staff. Their manifold shortcomings and mistakes, both in terms of judgment and technical gaffes, were raked over with consummate thoroughness by conservative commentators. But with Romney sensibly gone to ground (though he will break his silence this month at the annual CPAC conference) and his advisors making poor targets on their own, that got boring after a while. So with the people who determined the GOP fate in 2012 no longer such inviting targets, the spleen of some conservatives is now being vented on Karl Rove.
In the years since his masterful supervision of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, Rove has assumed a larger-than-life role in the imagination of those on both the left and the right. To the left, he was the evil genius behind every Republican victory whose fundraising prowess was the engine driving the conservative agenda. To many on the right, he became the symbol of an inside-the-Beltway GOP establishment seeking to stifle the Tea Party in order to perpetuate the go-along-to-get-along payola culture that betrayed conservative principles and empowered Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.
But lately Rove has been looking more like a consultant with feet of clay than a political prince of darkness. In the last month since Rove announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, conservative critics have been denouncing him and liberals have been crowing over his supposed demise. The right has seen his effort aimed at preventing GOP outliers from losing winnable Senate and House seats as an unconscionable establishment attempt to stifle the grass roots. The left views it as a sign of Republican weakness that can’t be masked by Rove’s tactics or fundraising skills. But the idea that Rove’s moment has passed, and that his virtual defenestration from the good graces of the same people whose votes he turned out in 2000 and 2004 marks the end of era, as today’s feature in Politico seems to indicate, is overblown at best. What’s wrong here is not so much the evaluation of the consultant and talking head’s current difficulties as it is the assumption that Rove is the giant bestriding American politics whose fortunes are in some way indistinguishable from that of his party.
Let’s specify that Rove has been an enormously successful political consultant whose guiding of George W. Bush to two presidential election wins would be enough for any mortal to dine out on for the rest of his life. Since then, he has continued to help raise large amounts of money for Republicans and his opining on the issues of the day on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal has given him a unique status among GOP strategists and talking heads.
But the failure of many of the Republicans he backed last year in both primaries and general elections showed that he was neither infallible nor all-powerful. The spectacle he made of himself on election night when he disputed the decision of Fox News to call Ohio for President Obama (made memorable by Megyn Kelly’s long march from the studio to the office where the election nerds made the decision) linked him to Romney’s loss in a visceral way that was quite unexpected. The negative reaction of many conservatives who see his Victory Project as an establishment evil empire striking back against activists, and the way so many other mainstream GOP figures immediately distanced themselves from the idea, seemed to mark the moment when Rove ceased to be the center of GOP gravity.
But those reviling and writing off Rove need to get a better grip on reality. Just because Rove ran the last winning GOP presidential campaign and appears on Fox didn’t make him the head of the Republican Party. He may well have profited from the myth of his pervasive influence, but that didn’t make it so. Rove was and is a very big deal in American politics but he was, after all, just a consultant whose fortunes are bound to rise and fall with the candidates he backs.
Political junkies have long tended to mythologize campaign managers. But as Rove understands well, it was George W. Bush who won those elections, even if his turn-out-the-vote efforts helped make it possible. No matter how much of a genius a consultant may be or how much money he manages to raise, it is the candidates who are always the deciding factors in any political battle.
The attention paid to Rove now over his campaign to weed out people like Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle and Todd Akin from the party’s slates around the country is as much a matter of hype as was the glory he received after 2004. His critics are absolutely right when they point out his instinctive backing of establishment favorites has identified him with as many losers as winners. Moreover, the idea that Rove can do a better job than the Tea Party in picking prospective senators runs aground when you consider that many of his choices tanked in the last two election cycles and that winners like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wouldn’t be in Washington if everyone had listened to him. But this proof that he isn’t really the GOP pope is not exactly a revelation. Consultants win some and they lose some. The techniques he pioneered in 2000 and 2004 are no longer the determining factors in elections, as the Obama machine proved twice since then.
Though I’m far from sanguine about the ability of his new group to steer the GOP back to control of the Senate, he doesn’t deserve the abuse he has been getting lately any more than he really merited the god-like manner with which some wrote about him in the years prior to 2012.
Whatever the state of Rove’s current fortunes, this tells us nothing about how he or the party will do in 2014 or 2016. Republicans should welcome any group, including that of Rove, aimed at helping them win elections. But that makes him just one voice among many seeking to help influence events. Liberals may want to hold onto Rove as a right-wing boogey man, but conservatives need to stop obsessing about him and the mythical establishment he represents. If they are to win again, they will need all they help they can get–even from the likes of Rove.