It’s doubtful that anyone who watched the cringe-inducing moment on Election Night 2012 when Karl Rove refused to believe President Obama had won Ohio would ever again think of the veteran strategist as a political genius. Rove, whose guru status was earned by piloting George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and managing his reelection, is still a major player in GOP politics with an influential PAC and is a regular presence in the media. But his ham-handed effort to raise the question of Hillary Clinton’s health damaged him more than it did her. Though everyone agrees that a presidential candidate’s health is fair game for comment, the blowback from the New York Post’s Page Six report of remarks he made about her having possible “brain damage” isn’t likely to convince anyone not to vote for the former secretary of state and first lady and made it harder to take Rove seriously as an analyst.
But that’s not the spin coming from much of the left today. Rather than merely joining much of the mainstream media including a number of leading conservative voices in scratching their heads at Rove’s poor judgment, liberals are using his gaffe not so much to defend Clinton but to prepare the ground for a general counter-offensive against any criticism of the likely Democratic candidate for president in 2016. According to Peter Beinart, Rove’s comments were just the latest example of his “dirty tricks.” Raising Hillary’s health in this manner was, he thought, a calculated attempt to smear the Democrat favorite.
While Beinart is right to note that “defining” one’s opponent in a pejorative fashion has become an integral part of American politics, the furious pushback from Clinton’s camp and the universal outrage from liberals about Rove’s temerity in even discussing any possible flaws in her armor smacks of something other than high-minded disdain for gutter politics. If Rove’s comments were, as Beinart suggests, among the first shots fired in the 2016 campaign, it appears most of the bullets are flying not at the Democrat but at her detractors. Like the outrage on the left about the notion of Clinton being forced to answer questions about Benghazi or why she failed to designate the Boko Haram Islamists as terrorists two years ago, the main point to be gleaned from this dustup is not the nastiness of the GOP but a strategy in which any and all criticism of Clinton is viewed as just another dastardly instance of a Republican war on women.
In 2012 Democrats devoted more effort to smearing Mitt Romney than in defending Obama’s poor record as president. It worked, as by the time voters went to the polls that November Romney, who is one of the most decent men to run for the presidency in recent memory, had been tarred as a rapacious capitalist as well as a high school bully and a man who tied his dog to the roof of his car. That Republicans failed to defend him adequately or to highlight what a mensch he actually was is to their discredit. But perhaps their real mistake was in acting as if those attempting to cut him down had a right to do so.
Clinton’s defenders are, however, not making that mistake.
While paying lip service to the notion that the health of presidential candidates is fair game, the counterattack to Rove’s remarks has not been so much about the inaccuracy of the Post’s quotes (and Rove says he was misquoted) but to depict him as a bully who is cleverly (!) trying to intimidate the Democrat frontrunner. If Rove’s decision to inject Hillary’s health into the political discussion was as premeditated as liberals assert, neither is it an accident that the left is so determined to squelch even the merest hint of a debate about any potential problem for Clinton.
Rather than stick to the facts about her health—which I hope is as good as her spokesman says it is—or to claim that she made no mistakes on Benghazi or Boko Haram, not to mention the other terrible blunders she committed as secretary of state like the Russia reset, Clinton’s defenders are doing something different. What we are witnessing now is proof that they are prepared to answer any attacks with a scorched earth approach that will make any mainstream conservative think twice before trying to muss up her hair, let alone make a point about her supposedly glittering resume for high office. Anyone making any attack on her, whether reasoned or as goofy as Rove’s comments, will be the subject of the kind of opprobrium that was once only leveled at other candidates.
What Democrats are doing now is to establish rules of engagement that will insulate Clinton in much the same manner that Obama was protected by charging his opponents with racism no matter what the substance of their criticism. Though Rove doesn’t deserve much sympathy, his demolition is a warning shot fired at the GOP to show that all criticism of Hillary will be treated as a dirty trick or a sexist assault on the first female president.