First, there’s the genius business. The authors make the case that Rove is a highly talented operative who pretty much does nothing but win. They present him single-minded and highly prepared, with a shrewd eye for political talent, and an admirably ruthless willingness to go for the jugular. They give us a good long look at his career, taking us on a fan’s tour of a quarter-century of Texas state politics. Believe me, to love this book, you’re going to have to be the kind of person who gets the vapors from reading sentences like, “With Rove handling his direct mail, Clements was in even better shape for his 1982 reelection bid against Mark White, the tall, drawling centrist attorney general who had replaced John Hill.” It’s the kind of book that will have the same effect on Charlie Cook that Grateful Dead concerts have on Bill Walton.
But what’s interesting about all these campaigns is to see just how seldom Rove-run operations make mistakes. It’s always the other fellows who don’t read the land right, or who make the faux pas, or who have some skeleton in their closets, or who don’t realize they’ve lashed themselves to some position that’s going to anchor them in the political deep. Look no further than the 2000 election: It was Gore, with all his assets, who couldn’t get out of his own way. Bush simply kept putting his best foot forward, and in the end, that was enough to put him in the position where the Supreme Court could elect him president. Not fumbling and not committing penalties may not be enough to get a football coach declared a genius, but it will win him a lot of games.
What does get someone like Rove declared a genius is pulling off the upset. The managers of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy weren’t thought of geniuses. Rove is acclaimed a genius by these writers and others because Bush was such a decided underdog–a man whose political gifts were then, and to a surprising degree remain, “misunderestimated.” Rove also gets recognized for the astonishing Republican rout in the 2002 midterms. The reason why you’d want to short your Rove genius stock is not that one can diminish his accomplishments by pointing out all the ways his adversaries over the years have blown it. It’s true, but irrelevant (even though it’s clear that the difference between political genius and MSNBC talking head lies in convincing a lot of older Jewish voters in Florida to mark their butterfly ballots for Pat Buchanan).
No, the reason that Rove’s genius quotient is apt to drop is that it’s unlikely that he will ever be able to surprise people again. It’s hard to imagine that the 2004 election will turn on issues other than the war on terrorism and the economy. Through the 2002 elections, the country effectively left it up to Bush and the Republicans to solve these issues. Bush either will have made progress on these things, or he will not. If he has gotten results, it may be easy for him to win reelection, but it will be because Bush has been a capable president, not because Rove is a genius. And if Bush has not made progress–if his tax cuts don’t work, and if his war has turned into a messy conflict, or, almost as bad, a messy post-conflict, and if there are more terrorist attacks–then it will also be hard for Rove to make Bush look like a winner. But at least he will have the opportunity.
The second reason that Rove will have trouble burnishing his genius rep is that he works for a Bush, a family that is famously loyal to its retainers, but not famously generous sharing the spotlight with them. A Bush presidency does not feature Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but rather Robin Hood and his Largely Anonymous Team Players. There’s a reason why the Bush administration has placed Homeland Security in the hands of the efficient, bland Tom Ridge, and not the face of 9/11, the hero-diva Rudy Giuliani. The book relates the chilling and amusing story about what happened after National Journal published a lengthy cover story on Rove in April 2002. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner a week later, Bush pointedly told one of the writers that he didn’t like his aides getting star treatment. At the same dinner, Vice President Cheney called the piece “grossly excessive,” which sounds like one of those brief, ominous, underplayed lines you half think you heard spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. The book also reports that along with “Boy Genius,” the president has given Rove another nickname: “Turd Blossom,” a term common in Texas for a flower that grows out of cowpies. I’m sure all of Bush’s nicknames convey affection and respect, but given the alternatives, I think I’d prefer my boss to call me Karl.
The third reason Rove will have trouble holding onto the genius label is that there’s no obvious sequel for him. Chairman of the Republican Party? Campaign consultant? Talking head? Head of the George W. Bush Presidential Library? They’re all steps down. He could run for office, but the skills don’t transfer well, as Kenny O’Donnell, Pierre Salinger, and Hamilton Jordan have demonstrated. No, there’s only one test worthy of his time and talent. Condi vs. Hillary in 2008. Rove in Rice’s corner, Carville in Clinton’s. Genius takes all.