Monday, September 27, 2004
Joshua Green has an enlightening (or is "terrifying" the word we want?) historical analysis of Karl Rove's campaign tactics in the November Atlantic. (Unfortunately, Atlantic Online is now accessible to print subscribers only; go on, pop for a sub, the cryptic puzzles alone are worth the price). Josh Marshall has already recapped the ugliest anecdote -- how Rove enlisted law students to circulate the rumor that an Alabama Supreme Court justice who had spent much of his career trying to help abused children was in fact a pederast -- but there is no dearth of alarming dirt on the man who turned the campaign smear into a science. For example, the first item directly below, which might shed some light on the provenance of the faked Rather memos:
A typical instance occurred in the hard-fought 1996 race for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court between Rove's client, Harold See, then a University of Alabama law professor, and the Democratic incumbent, Kenneth Ingram. According to someone who worked for him, Rove, dissatisfied with the campaign's progress, had flyers printed up—absent any trace of who was behind them—viciously attacking See and his family. "We were trying to craft a message to reach some of the blue-collar, lower-middle-class people," the staffer says. "You'd roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and paperboy it at houses late at night. I was told, 'Do not hand it to anybody, do not tell anybody who you're with, and if you can, borrow a car that doesn't have your tags.' So I borrowed a buddy's car [and drove] down the middle of the street … I had Hefty bags stuffed full of these rolled-up pamphlets, and I'd cruise the designated neighborhoods, throwing these things out with both hands and literally driving with my knees." The ploy left Rove's opponent at a loss. Ingram's staff realized that it would be fruitless to try to persuade the public that the See campaign was attacking its own candidate in order "to create a backlash against the Democrat," as Joe Perkins, who worked for Ingram, put it to me. Presumably the public would believe that Democrats were spreading terrible rumors about See and his family. "They just beat you down to your knees," Ingram said of being on the receiving end of Rove's attacks. See won the race.
Some of Rove's darker tactics cut even closer to the bone. One constant throughout his career is the prevalence of whisper campaigns against opponents. The 2000 primary campaign, for example, featured a widely disseminated rumor that John McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had betrayed his country under interrogation and been rendered mentally unfit for office. More often a Rove campaign questions an opponent's sexual orientation. Bush's 1994 race against Ann Richards featured a rumor that she was a lesbian, along with a rare instance of such a tactic's making it into the public record—when a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for "appointing avowed homosexual activists" to state jobs.
Another example of Rove's methods involves a former ally of Rove's from Texas, John Weaver, who, coincidentally, managed McCain's bid in 2000. Many Republican operatives in Texas tell the story of another close race of sorts: a competition in the 1980s to become the dominant Republican consultant in Texas. In 1986 Weaver and Rove both worked on Bill Clements's successful campaign for governor, after which Weaver was named executive director of the state Republican Party. Both were emerging as leading consultants, but Weaver's star seemed to be rising faster. The details vary slightly according to which insider tells the story, but the main point is always the same: after Weaver went into business for himself and lured away one of Rove's top employees, Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function. Weaver won't reply to the smear, but those close to him told me of their outrage at the nearly two-decades-old lie. Weaver was first made unwelcome in some Texas Republican circles, and eventually, following McCain's 2000 campaign, he left the Republican Party altogether . . . .
Rather than soften Bush's appeal to reach moderates, Rove, as he has done throughout his career, is attempting to control the debate by expertly spotlighting issues sure to inspire his core constituency: the drive for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the pronouncements about love of country, the unremitting attack against anything in an opponent that seems impregnable. All these tactics stand out in Rove's most memorable past victories.
Privately, Rove has been challenged and even denounced for his approach. A common refrain I heard from Republican consultants a few months ago was that his approach is foolish, because for the sake of an ideologically intense campaign, Rove is ceding to the Democrats the moderates Kerry is pursuing. And, these consultants fear, it puts Bush in jeopardy of seeing outside events decide the race.
But an interesting thing happened as I worked on this piece. Early in the summer, as Bush was struggling, even Rove's allies professed to doubt his ability to control the dynamics of the race in view of an unrelenting stream of bad news from Iraq. Several insisted that he was in over his head—with an emphasis that seemed to go deeper than mere professional envy. Yet by August, when attacks by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were dominating the front pages, such comments had become rarer. Then they died away entirely.
If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element. He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.