Triumphal Return of the Boy Genius

Here’s a warning: if your faith in divine providence, human progress, or simple justice is dangerously shaky, you probably should not read Paul Barrett’s long Business Week feature on Karl Rove’s return from ignominy to the heights of influence in American politics:

The bespectacled 61-year-old, once known as Bush’s Brain, left the White House five years ago. His patron was sinking in the polls, and Rove himself had barely escaped criminal indictment. Now he’s back—big time, as his friend former Vice President Dick Cheney might say. In a performance that rivals Rove’s nurturing of a famously inarticulate Texas governor into a two-term president, the strategist is reengineering the practice of partisan money management in hopes of drumming Barack Obama out of the White House.

That’s just the top line summary. Barrett explains in much greater detail how Rove managed to get out of the White House just ahead of the gendarmes; side-step responsibility for the 2008 disaster; position himself shrewdly as a technocratic (if highly partisan) pundit; and then become the first money wizard to fully comprehend and then exploit the wild west environment of campaign financing consummated by Citizens United. And with Bush campaign buddy Ed Gillespie, Rove set about creating a state-of-the-art advertising machine appropriate to the new era:

As they began planning how to make Obama a one-term president, Rove and Gillespie saw most Republican outside organizations as either one-shot affairs, like the Swift Boaters, or preachers to the base that pushed candidates to the extreme right. The anti-tax Club for Growth fit in the latter category. Some wealthy political benefactors had their own groups, Rove notes, most of which were run by a single strategist who siphoned off enormous fees for as long as the sponsor would tolerate it.

Rove pitched his proposed startup as a more professional alternative, one built to have impact in 2010 but endure long beyond. “The business model of a consultant-driven, vendor-directed entity that hired itself increasingly lacked credibility with donors and was unsustainable,” Rove explains. Among those who were convinced and made big contributions: Richard Baxter Gilliam, a Virginia coal mogul; Houston homebuilder Bob Perry; and Harold Clark Simmons, a Dallas industrialist.

In effect, Rove told big donors he’d give them the opportunity to contribute to a large, powerful and viciously partisan outfit determined to drive Obama from the White House, but also one that wouldn’t waste resources on intra-party factional fights or siphon money off to ad-makers. It was the perfect model for 2010 and then 2012.

The grand irony, of course, is that Rove is thriving at the very time that the entire Republican Party has decided to write off W.’s administration as a heretical failure, precisely because of the initiatives Rove himself designed as strategic masterstrokes (the Medicare, Rx Drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, and comprehensive immigration reform, not to mention all the spending associated with swing-voter-pandering). By all rights, the movement conservative takeover of the GOP that ensued from the 2008 disaster should have been puncuated by a ritual tarring-and-feathering of Rove, and his exile to some banana republic where he could practice his dark arts without consequences at home. Yet here we are today, with Rove back on top.

It is indeed enough to make you want to howl in rage at the injustice of it all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.