THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE….Is Karl Rove a genius? Is Karl Rove a doofus? Somebody pass the smelling salts!

Look: Rove is a sharp guy who knows how to win elections, but he’s not superhuman and never has been. He won a razor close election in 2000, and then won a couple more razor close elections with 9/11 at his back. He took pretty good advantage of the material he had to work with, but that material was never going to last forever. He’s not a doofus, he’s just a guy whose luck finally ran out.

But I want to add one more thing so simple-minded that I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. Here it is: if you pursue popular policies, you win. If you pursue unpopular policies, you lose. Ideology is secondary.

In George Bush’s first term, Republicans passed tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, campaign finance reform, Sarbanes-Oxley, a Medicare prescription drug plan, went to war against Afghanistan and Iraq, and appointed a bunch of conservative judges. Liberals may not have liked all of this stuff, but all of it polled pretty well. They were popular policies.

In Bush’s second term, Republicans pursued Social Security privatization, made a spectacle over Terri Schiavo, and fiddled while New Orleans drowned. In addition, they passed a bankruptcy bill and an energy bill that didn’t win them any points with rank-and-file voters, fought over immigration legislation, refused to expand stem cell funding, and wouldn’t even allow a vote on widely supported measures like a minimum wage increase. This did not exactly reflect the popular will.

I’m not trying to pretend that everything Bush did in his first term was popular and everything in his second term wasn’t. But that’s sure the way it trended. Corruption matters, Iraq matters, and ideology matters, but what matters even more is pursuing popular policies. Bush and Rove mostly did that in their first term (contrary to all their hot air about “not reading the polls”) and mostly didn’t in their second. Then, like Newt Gingrich in 1994, and the entire Democratic Party in the 70s, they discovered that it wasn’t ideology that got them elected in the first place. It was popular policies. When that gave way, they lost their mandate.

I know. Too simple-minded. And not very interesting. But still worth thinking about as an antidote to the coming onslaught of airy post-election theorizing from both right and left. Just keep it in the back of your mind, OK?