Conservative Shakedown Scam?

I’ve been pretty conspicuous in arguing that the war of words between Karl Rove and Tea Folk over the former’s announcement of a project to stop crazy people from winning major Republican primaries in 2014 did not represent any genuine “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party,” since it’s all about strategy and tactics, not actual ideology, where everyone involved agrees Maintaining Conservative Principles is the eternal North Star.

But still, I’ve shared the puzzlement of most everybody over Rove’s motivations in picking this loud fight, however superficial it ultimately proves to be.

At the Daily Beast, Michelle Cottle has an answer that’s pretty compelling if you understand that for Rove politics is always, always, always about fundraising, his original gig.

Post-election, big Republican donors have been demanding answers as a condition of future support for various groups—and players in the money game report that there has been barking, profanity, and not-so-veiled threats. “I do think you had a lot of donors saying, ‘You have to demonstrate you learned the lessons of the last campaign,’” says the Romney adviser. “Then they want to see measurable results toward that end. ‘What are you doing to make sure you’re not spending money the same old way?’ ”

Rove’s donors were no exception to this trend, meaning he needed to do something to unruffle their feathers. Fast. “This is all about the donors,” says another veteran strategist. And what better way to make a statement to donors than to formulate a brand-new strategy and splash it across the front page of the paper of record? Message: lessons learned. Course correction set. “This is a follow-the-shiny-ball strategy,” the strategist argues. “It’s smart to get donors focused on the future, focused on a new mission right away as opposed to waiting.”

This gambit, moreover, Cottle explains, ensured that Rove would be the center of attention, on Fox and in every other conservative venue, if only to explain and defend himself, at a time when he might otherwise finally be dismissed as yesterday’s news, just like his former boss W.

Now deliberately provoking the ire of the dominant faction of the conservative movement and of the GOP is not the most conventional way to keep oneself in the power loop. But Rove is nothing if not a devious SOB. This is the guy who figured out back in the 1990s that state judicial races were the ideal lever for producing a political realignment in the South because they would split off business leaders from the Democratic donor base while reducing the power and diverting the resources of the pro-Democratic trial lawyers. He’s the master of such two- and three-cushion shots, invariably revolving around money.

But Cottle suggests Rove isn’t the only one playing money games:

Rove isn’t the only one poised to benefit from this spectacle. Even as he pokes purists in an apparent effort to jumpstart his 2014 money machine, the purists are looking to fill their coffers by poking back. “They need their shiny ball strategy too,” observes the veteran strategist. “Everybody is trying to raise money.” And just like Rove, these groups play rough—at times a little too rough. Last week the Tea Party Patriots had to issue an apology for a help-us-fight-Karl-Rove fundraising plea that included a Photoshopped image of their target dressed as an SS officer. (An outside vendor took responsibility for the pic.)

This angle reinforces the broader reality that a lot of the rightward lurch in the GOP over the last two decades is ultimately about money: Republican pols have mainstreamed the violent and extremist language so often associated with direct-mail fundraising appeals in the past–even in intra-party dustups. It would not be surprising if Rove and his “enemies” are engaged in an implicit back-scratching agreement designed to fill everyone’s coffers, and distract attention from the disaster of 2012.

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.