The Man Behind the President

Robert Alt

April 1, 2005

He was hailed as the strategist behind the President’s campaign, a role which began before the formalities of the campaign trail when he arranged for visits by key supporters to the candidate’s home. In this key role, he reached out to new constituencies, expanded grassroots politicking, and built a small army of campaign foot soldiers. And in the end, he did something more than the otherwise formidable task of orchestrating a win for the President: he sparked a political realignment. He was Mark Hanna, the Ohio son and political strategist for William McKinley, who in 1896, ushered in a period of Republican Party dominance stretching until the New Deal. And so it is fitting that Karl Rove, a keen student of Hanna and McKinley, should take a major step toward a new realignment with a Presidential victory secured in no small measure by Hanna’s home state.

While it is too early to tell if Rove has achieved a genuine or lasting realignment, even his opponents have begun to acknowledge an electoral shift. When Tim Roemer pulled out of the race for Democratic National Committee chair, the Associated Press quoted him as candidly admitting that the “Republicans are in the strongest position they’ve been in since the early 20th century.” Or, in other words, since Mark Hanna. It is not simply that Republicans won the White House again. Rather, they won 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in the country. Republicans made significant gains among Hispanic voters, and achieved modest but important gains among African-American voters. Bush increased his vote total in 45 states between 2000 and 2004. The GOP expanded its lead in Congress, picking up four seats in the Senate in 2004 after picking up two Senate seats and more than 200 seats in the state legislatures in the 2002 midterm election. They currently reside in the majority of the governors’ mansions, including in blue states such as California, New York, and Massachusetts. And there is growing speculation that the Republican Party could accomplish the feat of picking up seats in Congress in the upcoming “six-year-itch” midterm election—a move that our own Peter Schramm has suggested would make realignment official.

There is an undeniable trend and method to these victories, which began not in 2000, but in 1977. That is the year that Karl Rove first made his way to Texas—a state which at the time boasted only one Republican in statewide office. By 1978, that number increased with the assistance of Rove, who was instrumental in the election of Bill Clements to governor. Rove was rewarded with the position of chief of staff to Governor Clements, a position he maintained until 1981, when he put out his own shingle for a direct mail political consulting business. He then began advising campaigns in earnest, and racking up victories for candidates like Senator Phil Gramm and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips.

By the time that George W. Bush was elected governor in 1994, Rove’s clients included not only the governor, but both U.S. Senators, a majority of the justices of the Texas Supreme Court, and most of the other statewide offices. In 2001, when he joined the President’s staff in Washington, Republicans in Texas held every statewide office, and most of these successful candidates were counted among Rove’s clients. In the process of gaining this Republican dominance, Rove sent prominent Democratic politicians such as Governor Ann Richards and Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower into political retirement.

As for the method to these victories, there are striking similarities between the early campaigns and Rove’s most recent victory: assure the party base is happy and turns out, encourage straight-ticket voting, and create networks of campaign workers not just for this election, but for elections yet to come so that each new campaign can build upon the gains of the last. Combine this strategy with Rove’s keen eye for issues that will be favorable to constituencies that are not traditional Republican voting blocks, and an uncanny ability to hone in on the opponents’ vulnerabilities, and you have a pretty good picture of how Rove has racked up such an impressive string of electoral successes.

Yet it should come as little surprise that for all his political successes, Karl Rove will be remembered by history more for his unique relationship with George W. Bush than for his role in electing him. Rove often tells the story of their first meeting. It occurred the day before Thanksgiving, 1973, when Rove, then a young Republican National Committee (RNC) employee, was directed to deliver car keys to then-RNC Chairman George H. W. Bush’s eldest son upon his arrival from Harvard. In a 2003 interview in The New Yorker, Rove reminisced:

I can literally remember what he was wearing: an Air National Guard flight jacket, cowboy boots, bluejeans, [sic] complete with the—in Texas you see it a lot—one of the back pockets will have a circle worn in the pocket from where you carry your tin of snuff, your tin of tobacco. He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have.

Rove saw W’s political potential from that first meeting, and so began the lifelong friendship between the man who would be president and the man who would help him get there. You can often tell how close the President is to someone by what he calls them. Bush has several monikers for Rove, ranging from the flattering “Boy Genius” and “The Architect,” to his more common nickname: “Turd Blossom”— a Texas colloquialism for a flower that grows in manure.

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics knows that Rove has tremendous influence in the Bush White House. For Bush’s first term in office, Rove’s official position was Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President—a position which allowed him to play a role in shaping policy. He took a number of new steps, including establishing the Office of Strategic Initiatives—sort of a White House think-tank—to provide long-term planning. And yet, in a city which often takes itself too seriously, he has managed his position with humor, referring to his weekly meeting of senior White House advisors as the “Strategery” Group, and to a mid-level meeting as the “Conspiracy of the Deputies.”

But the fact that Rove has influenced policy is not without controversy. The conspiracy theories abound, as perhaps best illustrated by the tinfoil-helmet-set’s insistence that, during the presidential debates last year, a bulge in President Bush’s suit jacket must have been some secret transmitter permitting Rove to feed the President the answers. (In reality, the President’s bulletproof vest was the culprit.) These conspiracy theories, which Rove dismisses as the left’s heuristic view of the Bush White House, allow the blue-state true believers to continue to “misunderestimate” the President, and yet to justify their continuing and increasing losses to this “simple” man as the work of the evil boy genius. But it is not just the Democrats who find Rove a convenient target for their disagreement with the administration. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard has astutely noted that confidants of George H. W. Bush who disagree with certain policies of George W. Bush “ascribe everything to Karl’s malign influence” rather than criticize the younger President Bush.

Furthermore, the current White House understandably showed reluctance concerning the mingling of policy and politics following the Clinton administration. The American people were subjected to eight years during which the most important issues of national security were poll-tested and politically driven. Should we intervene in Haiti? Can we justify under international law the assassination of Osama? President Clinton didn’t seem to know without the aid of Dick Morris and the pollsters. The Bush White House therefore sought to avoid either the appearance or the reality of this finger-in-the-air policymaking.

Not surprisingly then, the White House did not exactly emphasize Rove’s policy credentials during the first term. Rove’s propensity to quote at length from the Federalist Papers, or to understand the intricacies of issues such as tort reform, or to express his operating theory that good policy makes good politics would not be enough to overcome the Clinton political policy fatigue and the prevailing conspiracy theories, and so the White House was markedly low key about Rove’s influence on policy—a move which only seemed to convince Bush detractors all-the-more that it was Rove who called the shots on policy.

Throughout the first term, however, the President maintained a firm stance on his key foreign policy initiatives—particularly the war in Iraq—despite wavering public and pundit opinion. Having built up leadership credibility in his first four years, the President was apparently more comfortable formalizing Rove’s policy role in his second term. Accordingly, the President promoted Rove to Deputy White House Chief of Staff—a position which will involve coordinating policy between the White House Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council.

The new position will undoubtedly solidify Rove’s reputation as one of the most influential political consultants of the modern era, but interestingly, there are questions about just who is influencing whom in the Bush-Rove relationship. Dr. Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has known Rove since his early days in Texas politics, and notices a change in the man. The New York Times quotes Dr. Land as observing that “the president has impacted Karl Rove more than Karl Rove has influenced the president… Karl is much more serious about things of faith than he was when I first knew him, and I think that is the result of George W. Bush.” The interplay between the two is sufficiently complicated that Bill Kristol once commented that “I believe Karl is Bush. They’re not separate, each of them freestanding, with distinct agendas, as some people say.”

Yet for all this speculation, the truth appears to be rather simple: Their relationship is one in which each influences the thinking of the other. They share books, ideas, and a common love of politics. This similarity in the way they approach issues, and Rove’s reputation for deference to his boss, undoubtedly makes him a very effective—indeed a very influential—advisor.

While there is increasing speculation concerning realignment, we will not know whether Karl Rove has achieved this lifelong goal until the 2006 election results are final. But we do not need to wait that long to be assured of Rove’s place in history. He has already achieved the status of “The Architect,” and he will undoubtedly be remembered as the man behind the President.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the Ashbrook Center.