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Karl Rove has been called the second most powerful man in the world. He is the senior political advisor to President George W. Bush and, depending upon whom you believe, either the architect of a new breed of American conservatism or a conscience-free political animal who sees nothing in the world except elections and plans every event of the world surrounding him to further the political survival of his master. Both views, of course, have something to them.

He was born on Christmas Day in 1950 in Denver, Colorado. As a child, his family moved around a fair bit to support his father's career as a geologist; he grew up in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. As a young adult, he enrolled and briefly attended classes at the University of Utah, George Mason University, and the University of Texas at Austin, although he never earned a degree. This hasn't stopped him from teaching at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in the journalism department at UTA.

His involvement with Republican politics dates back to the early 1970s, when he worked as special assistant to then-head of the Republican National Committee, George H.W. Bush. It was in this position that he first met George W. Bush, quickly striking up a friendship that would one day lead both men to the White House. After serving the elder Bush, Rove moved on to policy and strategy positions in a long succession of Republican campaigns. He led the elder Bush's Presidential campaign in 1980 (and successfully put his candidate into the vice-presidency), led Phil Gramm's ascension from the House to the Senate, led two successful campaigns for the Texas governorship by Bill Clements, and led campaigns resulting in all 9 Texas supreme court seats being filled with Republicans. In short, he led every decisive campaign during a 15 year span in which Texas politics, at every level from the most local to the federal, completely changed hands from Democratic to Republican control. His only significant campaign loss over this interval was the Congressional campaign of George W. Bush in 1978. Small wonder he is viewed as King Karl by the Republican elite.

If that were all he had accomplished, he still would be able to lay claim to a position of great respect--a position where his ideas on policy and politics would Be Heard by decision makers all over the world. But that was just a warm up for the real show--the rise to power of George W. Bush and the shaping of a new conservative ideology. Therein lies the story of how he can be both so hated and so loved, held in such contempt and such regard, by people of the right and the left.

As mentioned before, Bush and Rove had met in the early 1970s while Rove was working for Bush's father. They became friends, and over time Rove became Bush's closest political confidant. Rove would later characterize the younger Bush as "the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait for a lifetime to be associated with", and his devotion to the boss, the single-minded pursuit of electoral success, demonstrates the depth of Rove's commitment to Bush as first a candidate and then as an officeholder.

We'll probably never know exactly when Rove began planning for Bush's ascent to the Presidency. When asked about it, he jokes that the planning started on "December 25, 1950". While he may have begun looking toward an eventual presidential run as early as that first, failed congressional race, he was certainly thinking about it by 1988. Months ahead of Bush's purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball club Rove was pushing the idea in the local media. He told reporters in the spring of '88 that owning a local sports franchise would "anchor him clearly as a Texas businessman" and that it would give him "exposure...something that will easily be recalled by people". The planning of Bush's political career had begun.

The strategy worked. Bush, who up to now had been at best mediocre in business, led a stunning increase in the value of the team. He, with Rove acting in his role as senior advisor, led a campaign that resulted in Arlington, Texas voters overwhelmingly approving a $135 million in taxpayer funds to finance the construction of a new ballpark for the Rangers. With the increased revenues made available by the new ballpark the Rangers were able to sign better (read: more expensive) players. The rejuvenated team, populated by superstars and playing in a state-of-the-art facility, became competitive nationally. Public interest in the team, once one of the bottom feeders of the baseball world, spiked and brought with it higher ticket sales and higher ticket prices. Bush's business credentials were set, his earlier failures would be overlooked. Rove had already begun looking to the next step.

5 years into Bush's ownership of the baseball team, Rove decided it was time to begin pushing Bush toward public office. Bush was skeptical, and his wife even more so. Neither wanted to be portrayed as running because George's Daddy had unfulfilled political aspirations. Rove and Bush met regularly throughout 1993 for fishing and golfing trips and in the end Rove's arguments won the day. In November they confirmed months of media and Republican party speculation by announcing that Bush would be challenging Democratic governor Ann Richards in the 1994 election. Rove and Bush had decided that she was vulnerable, especially on education, and that the time had come for GWB to attempt another entry to the world of politics that he had failed to penetrate in 1978.

Rove ran a carefully crafted campaign that year, raising enormous sums of money and focusing obsessively on education, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Richards, a former schoolteacher who never understood the threat Bush represented to her and who could never bring herself to take someone she thought of as a spoiled, upper-class preppie seriously, was soundly defeated in the fall of 1994. Bush had done well among white males, as expected. Not expected, though, was his strong showing among suburban women and Latino immigrants, two critical constituencies that had always been reliably Democratic. Rove's strategic vision had demonstrated its worth again.

He was next put to the test in the Texas gubernatorial race of 1998. Once again, Rove came through. To Bush's core message of education reform he added an unusually (for a Republican) pro-immigration set of policy initiatives, while managing to avoid campaign wrangling on issues such as abortion that motivate extreme partisans on both sides. The results were spectacular. Bush pulled 65% of women's votes, 49% of Latino votes, and more than a quarter (27%) of the African-American votes. All of these numbers are essentially unheard of for a modern Republican and, in conservative circles, Rove is widely credited with a strategic reformulation of conservatism that made it possible.

After the 1998 election, Rove wasted no time. Almost before Bush had been inaugurated for term number two as governor Rove had begun fund-raising efforts for the 2000 presidential election. In early 1999 he sold his consulting firm (which had been almost exclusively a Bush shop for 5 years) and went to work full time for the new Bush campaign, once again plotting how to convince Americans to vote for George W. Bush.

He ran this campaign in the same way he had run earlier campaigns for Bush. Fund-raising, fund-raising, fund-raising, followed by a dogged insistence to not be distracted by anything outside of a small group of core issues that Rove and Bush had agreed on ahead of time. In the 2000 race the message was all about compassionate conservatism, Rove's new term for the new policy basket that he had used to get Bush elected twice to the Texas statehouse: Tax cuts, education reform, faith-based initiatives, and defense spending, but nary a mention of intractable issues such as abortion or capital punishment. The Democrats briefly tried to attack Bush over the large number of questionable executions in Texas, but this proved to have no traction with American voters in 2000.

After the election debacle and the Supreme Court decision awarding the presidency to Bush, Rove formally joined Bush's White House staff. This was unusual for him, up to this point he had returned to a more independent existence as a political consultant between campaigns. But with his highest political aspirations now satisfied, Rove apparently decided that the right place to be was in the White House, coordinating the day-to-day political affairs of the administration.

Up to this point, very little that Rove had done had been controversial. Yes, he played dirty political tricks. Yes, he allowed opinion polls to drive his strategic initiatives. But this is how the game is played and nobody saw anything untoward about a political strategist spending his time strategizing. But his move into the White House was accompanied by an unprecedented amount of power being concentrated by the political staffers at the expense of time, energy, and focus on policy.

Reports from insiders on the Bush administration indicate that the political guys, headed up by Rove, are both the beginning and final clearinghouse for essentially every domestic issue that the White House addresses. In marked contrast to every prior administration, where policy wonks figure out the best thing to do and political hacks figure out how to sell it to the voters, this administration runs exactly opposite. Rove, in league with Bush, defines what issues are important on a political basis and then follows that up with policy work to defend it. For the elite establishment in Washington with vested interests in the prior arrangement this has been more than a little discomforting. It should not be surprising that they are attacking Rove with such ferocity.

That leaves open the question of whether Rove's control is a good thing, on the whole, or not. A serious argument can be made that it should never have been the policy people in charge in the first place. Don't try to figure out the right thing to do and then sell it. Let the political hacks figure out what the voters want--then give them that. Trust in the average person to actually have a reasonable clue as to what is important in their lives and their world.

On the other hand, this strikes a lot of people as hypocritical, unprincipled, or just plain dodgy. It feels as though the political leadership doesn't actually believe anything, it simply reflects the image back to voters that the voters projected in the first place. Where people hope to find substance they find only smoke and mirrors.

Good or bad, it is certainly unprecedented in modern times. And it has unquestionably reinvigorated the Republican party. Compassionate conservatism, the whole basket of initiatives that Rove has cooked up over the past decade of advising George W. Bush, is indeed changing the core of the Republican party. It is hard to imagine the pre-Rove/Bush party forcing a senior and respected member from power over some unintentionally racist comments. Whether you believe that the change stems from philosophical and principled grounds (meaning, basically, that Bush sets the agenda and Rove implements it) or that the change is the basest sort of political opportunism (meaning, driven by Rove and accepted by Bush as necessary), it is hard to deny Rove's influence over the modern Republican party, over America, and over the world. Is he the second most powerful man in the world? Probably not. But he's closer than most of us.


Sources:

  • http://quest.cjonline.com/stories/010501/gen_0105017610.shtml
  • http://www.famoustexans.com/karlrove.htm
  • http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/06/16/advisors/index1.html
  • http://www.aei.org/past_event/conf011211.htm (link now dead. the next cite is to the google cache of this page)
  • http://216.239.33.100/search?q=cache:DiekJ0J304oC:www.aei.org/past_event/conf011211.htm+&hl=en&ie=UTF-8
  • http://www.ronsuskind.com/writing/esquire/esq_rove_0103.html
  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/choice2000/bush/cron.html
  • http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/campaigns/wh2000/stories/bush073199.htm
  • http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A37401-2000Jul24¬Found=true

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